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Blog – Negotiation & Conflict Resolution

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By Rebecca England

The second workshop in CamAWiSE’s Navigating Workplace Dynamics series was a Negotiation and Conflict resolution session. This was run by Martina Peskoller-Fuchs, an official investigator and conflict resolver – an “Ombudsperson” for the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany.

Martina begun the session by defining conflict as a situation where people disagree strongly and asked us how interpersonal conflict makes us feel. Amongst the audience, we were unanimous in sharing that conflict evoked feelings of discomfort, fear and anxiety. However, Martina reassured us that as humans, these uncomfortable feelings are normal! From an evolutionary perspective, conflict is seen as a threat and thus provokes a danger “fight or flight” response. Unsurprisingly, upon Martina asking us which of the two would be our typical response to conflict, most admitted they would opt for the easier “flight” strategy. However, this created a pivotal point in the session, as Martina shared her key take-home message: we must “avoid” avoiding conflict.

To help us resolve, rather than run from conflicts, Martina next gave us some real-life scenarios to discuss. One example included a co-worker who freely expressed their opinion in group meetings, but did this at the detriment of others. Martina challenged us to think about what barriers would prevent us from confronting our co-worker. A mixture of responses were shared, including fear, awkwardness, internal conflict and concern of causing offence. Nevertheless, Martina bounced back with positivity, reassuring us that many of these responses are common and that we instead, could channel these feelings into strategies that address the conflict situation.

The strategy Martina shared which resonated with me most was one of having empathy for the other person. Martina highlighted that if we fear offending the other person involved, we should recognise our own empathetic strength in being considerate of the other person’s reaction. In fact, in many scenarios, the other person involved may not be aware of the conflict, or how they are perceived. Therefore, if we genuinely want the best for this person, we should inform the person as early as possible. This means improvements can be implemented quickly and negative results minimised.

Martina also enlightened us that resolving conflict can result in benefits. After a conflict has been discussed, the other person can be grateful, there can be a huge sigh of relief, and a stronger relationship is built. This reminded me of times during my Master’s in Sweden when I corrected the English of friends who were non-native speakers. Many responded with the likes of “Ahh, thank you so much – everybody is too polite to tell me when I make a mistake. I have been saying it that way for years!”. This often resulted in us bursting into laughter, as I shared that I too was initially afraid of their reaction. Since then, I have been motivated to continue sharing English mistakes with friends to help them improve.

Another benefit Martina highlighted to resolving conflicts is that it gives us an opportunity to define our values. We can do this by reflecting on why the conflict scenario bothers us. Upon reflecting on correcting the English of my friends, I can see that I value honesty, helping others and education. Martina further assured us that having an awareness of our values is useful, as we can exert them when discussing conflict to find a resolution.

Thomas kilman modelIn Thomas and Kilmann’s model of conflict, assertiveness – expressing what we want – is balanced against co-cooperativeness, how much we are willing to give in to another’s wants. As women, we recognised that stereotypically we fall into the co-operative extreme, the “accommodating” approach, where needs of others are focused on. Whilst this approach pleases others, if pursued long term, it can neglect important mental, and health needs we have not asserted.

Therefore, Martina suggested the ideal conflict solution would be adopting a “collaborating” approach. Collaborating instead involves both assertiveness – explaining what we want and why (our values), with co-cooperativeness – asking others what they value. To demonstrate this collaborative approach, Martina gave us the scenario of two people fighting over one orange. At first, the best solution may be seen as cutting the orange in half. However, neither person would be truly happy, fitting the “compromising” approach in Thomas and Kilmann’s model. On the other hand, both people could discuss why they wanted the orange. One could value the Vitamin C and another the orange ingredient for an orange cake. After understanding each other’s differences, this could allow one person to offer an alternative fruit which also has Vitamin C.

This collaborative approach also reiterates three of the habits I recently read about in Stephen Covey’s renowned book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. 1) Creating win-win solutions, 2) seeking to understand the perspective of others and 3) synergising to create a new alternative solution – here, another high Vitamin C fruit. Therefore, I would argue that to encourage more engagement in conflict, it may help to re-define conflict. Instead of conflict being “a situation where people disagree strongly”, it could be “a situation where people exhibit significant differences”. This more positive definition could cultivate curiosity to understand the other person’s point of view.

EMBL-logo-minTo conclude the session, Martina left us with an imaginative analogy. This included a snippet from Aesop’s Fables featuring a rider feeling unable to control the route their horse would take them. However, the story emphasised that the rider could tame the horse and therefore direct the horse to the route desired. Martina used this story to demonstrate the importance of believing that no person (or horse!) is fixed in their behaviours. Therefore, when confronted with conflict, we must remember that both our own and others’ behaviours can be changed – we just first need to be open to discuss it.

Suggested reading:

  • Thomas and Kilmann conflict model
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey
  • Aesop’s Fables

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