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Conflict Resolution - 3 February 2015

If you get nothing work-related out of this newsletter, hopefully you’ll at least get some pointers on how to have a happier relationship with your partner, if you have one. That’s because the study I’ll be sharing has been tested not on employees but on married couples. The lessons, though, are just as applicable in employment as they are in romance.

In significant new research just published in the Journal of Counselling Psychology, eleven academics wanted to explore the trend that half of marriages end in divorce. But, even more importantly, they were keen to better understand the early years of marriage, which are apparently the riskiest. (Incidentally, similar trends occur in the workplace. Conflict and break-ups are much more frequent in the early stages of a team’s formation.)

Anyway, the researchers analysed the effect of two different strategies on 145 couples. One of the strategies was called HOPE, which stood for Handling Our Problems Effectively. The other was called FREE, which stood for Forgiveness and Reconciliation through Experiencing Empathy. Here’s a brief summary of the distinction between the two.

HOPE is about prevention. It’s a process that focuses on communication and conflict resolution. Couples are taught how to properly express themselves, how to listen, and how to resolve differences so that small issues don’t escalate into larger ones.

FREE is about remediation. It’s a process that seeks to repair the damage caused by conflict that’s already out of control. Couples are taught how to confront past misbehaviour, how to admit it when they’re wrong, and how to forgive.

Both methods were found to have merit but only one of them was found to be a “potent strategy” resulting in “significant benefits” to the relationship. If you guessed HOPE, you’re correct. In fact, the couples that practiced HOPE also subsequently had lower levels of cortisol, which means they were less stressed.

Now here’s what this means for you in the workplace. In order to manage conflict within your team, it’s true that HOPE and FREE are both essential, but HOPE – just like in the study on couples – is infinitely more valuable. That’s because it prevents conflict from occurring in the first place, whereas FREE is useful on the odd occasion things get out of hand.

To maximise the effects of HOPE, and by virtue reduce the chances of conflict, you need to instil similar communication and resolution skills within your team. So:

  • Teach it: Run training programs on how to spot the early signs of discord, how to tactfully express disagreement, and how to resolve issues constructively.
  • Model it: Be mindful of the ways in which you yourself represent good conflict or bad conflict. The former results in creativity; the latter in bad blood and poor morale.
  • Coach it: Provide employees with immediate feedback on how well (or how badly) they deal with conflict whenever it occurs.
  • Practice it: Even though people dislike role plays, they can still be a great way to embed the communication skills that are at the heart of making HOPE a success.
As they say, HOPE will set you FREE.

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