Author Matt Coyle (LeaderImpact Global)

What are your conflict skills like? Do you remember the last argument that you had with a colleague, friend, life partner, or boss? Perhaps, you have a love/hate relationship with conflict. 

At work there is something enormously satisfying about solving a problem and watching the momentum of the organisation’s mission build up speed in front of your eyes. Indeed, we need a kind of conflict to get to the best ideas. 

Conflict arises as you aim to reduce the friction preventing you from making faster progress. This might be internal bureaucracy, inefficient systems or inadequate resources. Of course, it is not always that easy is it? In other situations you think you have all the right people in the room to solve the problem, but then one or more of the key stakeholders connects their self-esteem to the ideas and solutions they suggest. In no time at all - as long as it takes for someone to offer an improvement to that person’s idea - the emotional temperature goes up, the person becomes defensive and if there is no intervention, any hope of finding a meaningful solution with their help quickly dissolves. And this is just at work! 

Often in our friendships or most intimate relationships our emotions are more readily apparent. It seems easier to keep our emotions in check at work than at home and it can be too easy to cause hurt or take offense. Conflict in interpersonal relationships requires intentionality and vulnerability.

I was part of a conflict resolution training session some time ago, but it was such a powerful experience that it comes to me at even the slightest hint of conflict. I will share with you the outline of the tool itself, but I think the real lesson for leaders is the way it was delivered. 

Let me briefly outline the tool for you:

Take a piece of paper and trace the shape of your hand palm up onto the paper.  I am right-handed so that means as I am looking at my left hand with the thumb on the left and pinky finger on the right. Next, simply write the following words on each digit of the hand. “Facts,” “Thoughts,” “Feelings,” “Wants,” “Actions.” 

Perhaps you can already see where this is going. You might be able to imagine that your closed fist indicates that there is conflict. In order to achieve resolution, you need to try and extend each of your fingers so that you become open-handed. It is important that each person involved in the conflict receives a chance to do this. As you lift each finger, answer questions like: What are the facts of the situation as you understand them? Given these facts, what do you think about the problem, or the other person? How does this make you feel? What do you want? From them? To change? In order to see success? What action is required to reach resolution? 

It may be that your conflict is really just something that you need to work through by yourself first. This exercise is equally helpful in that situation as well.  I have even done this when I just feel like something is wrong, but I am having a hard time understanding where the tension is coming from.  

So why was this tool so memorable? When I arrived at the conflict resolution course I walked into the room, I took my seat in one of the chairs provided and then I noticed that on the carpet at the front of the room our trainers had marked out the shape of a giant hand. I wondered what it might be for and assumed there was an interesting object lesson coming our way. 

The training was being run by a husband and wife team, let’s call them James and Sally. In turn, they introduced the topic for the session as conflict resolution and proceeded to describe the hand and what it represented in a similar way to how I described it above.  

Then our trainers went somewhere I wasn't expecting: prior to them arriving at the venue they had an argument. Feelings had been hurt and they knew they needed to seek resolution with one another. However, rather than doing that in the privacy of their hotel room, they said to one another let’s not resolve this now. Instead, they made the short walk from the hotel to the training venue, set up the room for the day and then welcomed all the participants into the room ready to start the session. 

Now that they had introduced the topic, they said that they would like to demonstrate how to use the hand to resolve their own conflict. And that is what they did! First, Sally walked to the giant hand on the floor and took up her place on the thumb. She then described what she saw as the facts, the husband simply nodded and listened. Sally, then took a step to the next finger and explained what she thought. She was clearly upset and it wasn’t long before she brought a tissue to her nose. 

Nevertheless, she was measured and mature as she vulnerably shared about the hurt she felt. After stepping to each finger, Sally sat down and James took his place on the hand. Clearly, he now understood Sally’s situation and expressed his point of view with empathy. 

After the initial shock, I found myself in awe of James and Sally and their willingness to be so vulnerable in front of us. There was nothing inappropriate, and even when emotion was shared it was kept in check so that the communication wasn't overwhelmed by it. This was a very mature couple. I certainly put this tool in my leadership toolbox, but more than that I was deeply challenged in my leadership. 

Here is the question that I reflected on after completing the training course:

  • If I invited others to watch me in a conflict situation with my significant other or an employee or a friend, would they see me demonstrate appropriate humility and vulnerability? Or would they see me try to protect myself by acting defensively? 


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