Managing Conflict

Summary of Managing Conflict,  by Richard E. Walton

p.3: Interpersonal relations in organizations are created by interdependencies involving physical work flows, technical services, information, or advice.

It takes emotional energy to totally suppress the conflict, and it may take even more emotional energy to confront it.  Therefore conflicts often are played out in some indirect mode, which usually takes the least energy — in the short run.  Indirect conflicts, however, have the longest life expectancy and have the most costs that cannot be attributed to the original conflict.

p.6: A good working relationship has the following attributes:

  • Identification of and commitment to the largest set of common goals appropriate to the co-workers’ respective roles.
  • Mutually agreed roles  (cf.: Waterline Model)
  • Mutual trust and respect
  • Shared norms and expectations
  • Respect for individual differences and tolerance for diversity of views.

p.7: The dialog approach … prescribes the functional requirements that must be met for a dialog to be constructive, acknowledging that an array of techniques can be utilized to meet them.  The requirements include mutual reinforcement of motivation, balanced power in the situation, and an optimum level of tension.  (cf.: Leadership on the Line)

p.8: [companies now place] a higher premium on interpersonal skills, including communication and conflict management. …
there was heightened appreciation that the quality of outcomes depends directly on the quality of the process.  … this greater attention to process has brought about a redefinition of the role of organization development as a specialization in the corporate organization.

p.28: [referencing dissatisfaction with service from another department]
“When you vie for service, you still have to get it through persuasion.”

p.30: [observations made to a principal]

  • I wonder what unique aspects of your relationship with Mack account for your feelings towards him.
  • I wonder what you bring to that relationship
  • Given your long list of negative feelings about Mack, is one of these basic and are the others just reflections of this central concern?
  • Do you have any hunches?

p.39: [after an emotional dialog, it is beneficial to keep the principals together]
Dave’s suggestion that they go to lunch together held the group intact following their high emotional experience; this allowed members to provide each other with the reassurance they needed.

p.65: Interpersonal conflict is cyclical and the cycles may be either escalating, de-escalating, or maintaining of the level of conflict.  A conflict cycle involves four basic elements:

  1. The issues
  2. The circumstances that precipitate manifest conflict [triggers]
  3. The conflict-relevant acts of the principals
  4. The various consequences.
Purpose of Conflict Dialog
Elements of Conflict Cycle or Episode Diagnostic Objective Action Objective
Issues in conflict Differentiate basic from symptomatic issues and resolvable from unresolvable issues. Resolve by compromise or integration of substantive differences and working through emotional differences.
Events or conditions that trigger manifest conflict Identify barriers to conflict or conflict management behaviors and events that precipitate such behaviors. Control by avoiding triggering new episode unless constructive purpose will be served.
Manifest tactics or resolution initiatives Understand how characteristic conflict behaviors can generate additional issues. Control by limiting destructive tactics, encouraging constructive initiatives.
Consequences, including feelings produced by conflict Understand the feelings generated by conflict episodes, how they are coped with, and therefore whether they are fueling the next episode. Control by assisting principals to cope better with feelings and other consequences of conflict.


p.68: Substantive and Emotional Issues
Substantive Emotional
Role definition personal needs being frustrated
Role performance Contradictory personal demands on relationships
Competition for rewards and resources

The distinction between substantive and emotional issues is important because the substantive conflicts requires bargaining and problem solving between the principals and mediative interventions by the third party, whereas emotional conflict requires a restructuring of a person’s perceptions and the working through of feelings between the principals, as well as conflictive interventions by the third party.  The former processes are basically cognitive, the latter processes are more affective.  (cf.: Adaptive vs. Technical)

p.60: Triggering Events and barriers to facing a conflict:

  • Task requirements (no time for maintenance)
  • Group norms (managers believe they should not express negative feelings toward others)
  • Personal role concepts (A boss may feel that his ability to engage in conflict with a subordinate is limited by his supervisory role).
    cf. “Rank” from Sitting in the Fire
  • Perceptions of the other’s vulnerability (The other person may be seen as too susceptible to hurt from a direct expression of feelings.)
  • Perceptions of one’s own vulnerability to the other’s conflict tactics.
  • Fear that a conciliatory overture won’t be reciprocated.
  • Physical barriers to interaction.

p.72: To prevent manifest conflict, at least temporarily, one can reinforce the indicated barriers and attempt to head off the types of events that trigger manifest conflict.  Conversely, if constructive dialogue is appropriate, one knows what barriers must be overcome and what factors will make the conflict especially salient for each principal.  Because a different set of barriers and precipitating factors usually applies to each principal, one must find the circumstances that facilitate a mutual confrontation.

The frequency of conflict encounters may be systematically controlled by operating on barriers and triggering events.

p.73: The costs of conflict are the missed opportunities for creative collaboration as well as more tangible consequences.

p.76: Understanding the nature of conflict tactics is relevant to conflict management because conflict behaviors are the most available indexes of the existence of differences between persons and because the nature of the tactics largely determines the consequences of the conflict.  Perhaps the most important diagnostic aspect of conflict management is an understanding of the consequences of an interpersonal conflict.

p.77: Whether the original and basic issue is substantive or emotional, the conflict is likely to develop additional issues symptomatic of both types.

p.78: When substantitive conflict produces emotional conflict, the latter creates “noise” in the communications upon which the parties must rely to confront the substantive issues.

Typically, the most general objective [of conflict management] is to interrupt a self-maintaining or escalating cycle and to initiate a de-escalating cycle.

p.79: It is especially helpful to recognize early warning signals, signs that one or both parties are experiencing mounting stress.

The drawback to control strategies that avoid conflict exchanges is that the eventual results may be less desirable than an early expression of the conflict.

  1. The conflict may tend to go underground, become less direct but more destructive, and eventually become more difficult to confront and resolve.
  2. The participant’s suppression of the substantive issues and their antagonistic feelings may make the manifest conflict, when it does occur, more intense and destructive.

p.84: Candor does involve risks for participants.  Openness about one’s feelings in itself often violates organizational norms prescribing rationality and proscribing emotionality.  Moreover, if one does not resolve the relationship issue, one’s statements may serve to add further cause for the other’s antagonisms.  In any event, one may feel even more vulnerable because of what the other knows about him.  Thus, an important task of conflict management includes maximizing the productivity of a dialogue and minimizing the risks involved.

p.83-98:  The following ingredients in the interpersonal setting are postulated as strategic to productive dialogue.

  1. Mutual positive motivation.
    • If one engages another to resolve a conflict and discovers that the second person was unaware of or indifferent to the conflict, this can be embarrassing.
  2. Balance in the situation power of the two principals.
    • Perceptions of power inequality undermine trust, inhibit dialogue, and decrease the likelihood of a constructive outcome.  Inequality tends to undermine trust on both ends of the unbalanced relationship.
      [Underdog fears retribution; the more powerful attributes response as a fearful compliance rather than genuineness]
  3. Synchronization of their confrontation efforts.
    • Reciprocation: a person tends to reject someone who whose appeared to reject him or her.
    • Reinforcement: a person’s tendency to make overtures decreases if his or her efforts do not receive positive responses.
    • Interpretation: a sincere effort to clarify the issues may be seen simply as an attack; or a conciliatory move can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, rather than as a positive overture from a position of strength.
  4. Appropriate pacing of the phases of a dialogue.
    • Differentiation: it usually takes some extended period of time for parties in conflict to describe the issues that divide them and to ventilate their feelings about each other.
    • Integration: the parties appreciate their similarities, acknowledge their common goals, own up to positive aspects of their ambivalences, express warmth and respect, or engage in other positive actions to manage their conflict.
    • To the extent that the parties try to cut short the differentiation phase, dialogues are likely to abort or to result in solutions that are unstable.
  5. Conditions favoring openness.
    Three factors significantly contribute to openness in the dialogue:

    • Relevant norms of the social system
    • the emotional reassurance available to the participants
    • the “process skills’ available for facilitating dialogue.
  6. Reliable communicative signs.  (cf.: IP Gap)
    • Selective perception: a person perceives and utilizes information about which the person has little ambivalence, avoiding information that challenges attitudes which are not firmly held.
    • Predisposed evaluation: the tendency to evaluate negatively, to discount, to refute information that one cannot avoid and that does not conform to one’s existing attitudes.
    • If and when one finally is more correctly perceived, the person becomes more relaxed and feels somewhat more accepted just by virtue of being understood.
  7. Optimum tension in the situation.   (cf.: Leadership on the Line)
    • If the threat level is low, there is no sense of urgency, and no necessity to look for alternative ways of behaving, and no incentive for conciliatory overtures.
    • At a higher threat level, … the person searches for and integrates more information, considers more alternatives, and experiences a higher sense of urgency in changing the situation.
    • At a very high level of threat the person’s ability to process information and perceive alternatives decreases.  This can produce rigidity of positions and polarization of adversaries.
    • A brief period of high threat followed by a reduction of threat often leaves an after-image of the necessity for improvement and yet also currently provides a climate that allows for efficient information processing and exchange and behavioral change.

p.100-110: Techniques for managing a dialogue

  • Prepare the participants
  • Find neutral turf
  • Set the formality and time frame
  • Get the right mix of people into the meeting
  • Referee the interaction process
  • Initiate the agenda
  • Restate the issue and the principals’ views
  • Elicit reactions and offer observations
  • diagnose the conflict
  • Prescribe discussion methods
  • Diagnose causes of poor dialogue
    • “Yes, that is how you feel right now as things stand.  What conditions would have to change, including those under other’s control, that would allow you to feel differently?”
  • Plan for future dialogue
    • the practice with dialogue techniques should have increased the principal’s ability to use them, especially if these techniques or principles were made explicit by the consultant and stated in operations terms.
    • The consultant can attempt to include another third party in the process, one who will be readily available to the principals.
    • The party can ensure that the principals have a specific time and purpose planned for getting together again.

p.111: third Party Attributes

  • Professional expertise and personal qualities
    • Professional identity with human relations training makes it easier for a consultant to be perceived as someone able to promote interpersonal dialogue.  Demonstrated consulting skill in previous projects within the same organization also lends confidence in the consultant’s ability.
  • Appropriate power and knowledge
    • It is an advantage for the third part to have little power over the futures of the principals in order to decrease the participants’ sense of risk in confronting issues candidly and tendency to seek the approval of the third party.
    • The third party needs another type of power: influence over the choice of setting, composition of group, agenda, and phasing.
    • At least moderate knowledge of the principals, issues, and background factors usually is an advantage.
  • Neutrality
  • Work on the role relationship [as the role of a 3rd party]

p.115: Five role attributes for identifying potential third parties from within an organization and for judging the potential effectiveness of persons who would be third parties:

  1. High professional expertise regarding social process
  2. Low power over the fate of the principals
  3. High control over confrontation settings and process
  4. Moderate knowledge about the principals, issues, and background factors
  5. Neutrality or balance with respect to substantive outcome, personal relationships, and conflict-resolution methodology

p.145: [regarding the large-group, international dialogue]
The format encouraged openness about feelings as well as thought, but some persons were more comfortable than others with the expression of affect — love, hate, rejection, anger, regret, shame, guilt, hope, despair, compassion, or disappointment.  Those who tended to suppress or deny such feelings were less able to trust quickly.  The effect of some inhibited participants was to slow down the development of trusting relationships.  Also, the presence of even one person who lacks emotional maturity and who has abnormally high self-oriented needs — for example, for attention or to be counterdependent — can seriously distort, even completely disrupt, a workshop.


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