Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Managing Conflict

Unit 9


I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

'The Poison Tree' William Blake

Conflict and dispute are part of life. There is no society, community, organi­sation or interpersonal relationship which does not experience conflict at some time or another as part of daily interaction. Conflict arises when people or groups are engaged in competition to meet goals which are perceived to be, or are in fact, incompatible. Conflict can become physically and emotionally damaging or it can lead to growth and productivity for all parties. It all depends on how conflict is managed and resolved.

Individual study time: 3 hours

Learning outcomes
After working through this unit, you should be able to:

¨ understand the nature of conflict
¨ recognise stages of conflict
¨ apply techniques of conflict resolution
¨ establish measures to avoid conflict.

This is such an important area that there are now many commercial courses in “Conflict Resolution” which, if you find this area difficult, you might like to attend.

The nature of conflict
This programme does not attempt to give participants final solutions on conflict resolution, but rather it deals with what school heads might say and do with colleagues, parents and pupils when they cannot agree on certain matters.

How can one describe conflict? One definition is found below:

'Conflict is an open disagreement between two people or groups of people who have different goals and values. Conflict involves people's feelings as well as their objectives, and both feelings as well as outcome of the conflict must be resolved, agreement must be found or a compro­mise worked out.'

Although this definition is rather negative, a number of comments have been made by writers on the nature of conflict which recognise the definite advantages that can be gained from conflict, including:

¨ confronting the individual with him or herself
¨ forcing reassessment of the position of the other party
¨ redefining of roles and relationships
¨ facilitating change
¨ preventing stagnation
¨ creating an awareness of alternatives and options.

Conflict as a process
The particular nature of conflict situations is not unknown to school heads. At the outset a conflict situation is often perceived as a single event; but this is seldom the case. Conflicts do not simply erupt; rather they develop through various stages, and in each of these stages certain factors contribute to the possibility of conflict.
Activity 8.1
1) Identify a particular conflict situation you are familiar with.
2) List the possible stages in the development of this conflict from beginning to end.
Try to match the stages you identified with those discussed below:

Perceived conflict: Potential conflicts are precipitated by how individuals see each other. These perceptions determine whether conflict will occur.

Felt conflict: As mentioned in the definition of conflict, people's feelings and attitudes towards each other, and the particular cause of conflict, will further affect their eventual behaviour.

Manifest conflict: Based on the two stages above confrontation will occur, being either conflictive or problem‑solving.

Conflict resolution: At some point in the process conflict will either be resolved, or it will be suppressed.

Resolution aftermath: Depending on the outcome of the resolution the future situation might lead to further conflict or to co‑operation.

Conflict resolution
Conflict management is one of the activities that a school head is exposed to on a daily basis. The types of conflict a school head is exposed to are not restricted to the domain of the school, and in many cases can involve the community and other stakeholders.

Reflect for a moment on the conflict situations you have had to deal with over the past few months.
If one is to analyse the situations you have thought about, one assumption that holds true for all the cases is that problems must be solved. It is therefore on this assumption that school heads have to develop their skills in the area of conflict resolution.
What is conflict resolution?
'Resolution of conflict occurs when parties involved understand each other's position accurately They are willing to discuss it, because they want to resolve the conflict, regardless of their disagreements. Resolution occurs only when the parties try to reach mutually satisfying solutions.'

In the past, school heads have depended upon a well established hierarchy in authority. The person in the leadership role could make rapid decisions and act autocrat­ically when necessary. This was often used to ‘resolve’ conflict situations but were these solutions lasting and effective in the long‑term?

The definition of conflict resolution posed above assumes a method of problem‑solving that is more democratic in its approach and allows those affected to be involved. The next section suggests some ways in which you might want to approach conflict resolution in the future.

Techniques of conflict resolution
When attempting to reach agreement in a conflict situation it may be useful
to take note of the five causes of conflict usually described by writers. These are differences based on a clash of:

¨ interests
¨ understanding
¨ values
¨ style
¨ opinion.

Writers identify three styles of reaction to conflict. These are:

¨ aggressive ('fight it')
¨ assertive ('negotiate it')
¨ passive ('avoid it').

Five skills for negotiating conflict can also be identified. These are:

¨ define it
¨ understand it
¨ look for 'win‑win' (where all parties to the conflict feel that they have gained something)
¨ act at the right time
¨ check out the results.

These approaches to conflict resolution are valuable and instructive. They embody certain techniques which are very useful in reducing tension between persons or groups, but they do put great emphasis on the school head and her or his skill in being able to negotiate a satisfactory resolution to a conflict.

In dealing with potential conflicts you might want to consider the following:

Ten hints on conflict resolution

1) Nurture a positive atmosphere.
2) Clarify perceptions of yourself and your position.
3) Clarify perceptions of the other parties.
4) Clarify perceptions of the causes of the conflict.
5) Clarify the underlying factors of the cause.
6) Be in charge of your responses.
7) Encourage parties to express feelings.
8) Focus on shared needs and goals.
9) Generate options.
10) Develop and implement 'do‑able' parts.


One way of positive conflict management is negotiation. Negotiation has been defined as: 'A transaction in which both parties have a veto on the final outcome'.

In other words, each party in a negotiation has to consent to the outcome if it is to be implemented and each has an interest in the other agreeing to it. Thus by negotiating we make a joint decision.

According to this definition, negotiation is something we do every day in our personal, professional or business lives. For example, people nego­tiate with their spouses on whether they spend their money on new house­hold furniture, with their children on which household chores they have to do. They negotiate a salary increase with their bosses and may be part of formal high level negotiations on local, regional, national or international policy or business issues.
We are constantly encouraged to become participants in the development process. Participation means shared decision‑making which means reaching agreement. Successful participation is dependent on the skill of negotiation.

Negotiation is not easy. The majority of people only know two ways of negotiation, namely gentle and soft or tough and hard. Whatever position is taken involves a trade‑off between getting what the parties want and keeping a good relationship between the negotiating parties.
There are many methods of negotiating and you will have your own techniques for which you will have had a measure of success. However the following method is valuable because it can be used everywhere by anybody to negotiate anything.

It will be helpful to have a quick look at the strategies people usually follow when employing this method.

¨ Each party takes up a position, defends it and makes a series of concessions until an agreement is reached or when the negotiations break down because the parties could not make any additional concessions on their positions. One problem with this kind of bargaining is that the main concern becomes the positions of the parties and not the issues which brought the group together in the first place. It is usually a very long process, emotionally draining, but it can produce agree­ments which will be acceptable to all in the most efficient and friendly way as possible. The method consists of four points which deal with the basics of negotiation. They are people, interests, options and criteria.

¨ PEOPLE - Separate the people from the problem. This first point is important because negotiators are people with their own emotions, beliefs, likes and dislikes which influence the way they perceive the problem and search for a solu­tion. It is thus imperative that negotiating parties identify the problem and work together to solve the problem and do not spend the time trying to attack and change the people involved in the negotiation process.

¨ INTERESTS - Focus on interests and not on the position. This second critical point empha­sises the importance of identifying and focusing on the negotiating parties' real interests and not on their positions. Ask the basic question 'why?' to find out your own and the other party's real interests. Moreover, the most powerful, but often most overlooked interests are the universal basic human needs, that is, economic well‑being, security, social acceptance, a sense of belonging and control over one's own life. But above all listen to what is being said.

¨ OPTIONS - Generate a wide variety of possibilities before reaching a decision. Set aside a special time for the parties to invent a wide variety of possible solutions to the problem. It has been found that the major obstacles to inventing options are:

o premature judgement
o the search for the single answer
o assuming that 'solving their problem is their problem'.

To overcome these obstacles it will be necessary to:

o Separate the act of judging from the act of inventing options. One strategy to use is that of brainstorming.
o Look for multiple options which encourages different modes of thinking on the same subject.
o Try and find mutual gain by identifying shared interests.
o Make the solution of their problem also your problem by actively trying to understand their position and coming up with shared solutions.

¨ CRITERIA - Insist that the result be based on objective and standard criteria by which results can be measured. This will ensure a fair solution.

These four points are important and relevant throughout the negotiation process.

This, however, is one proposed way of dealing with conflict. There are so many models. You would do well to research them and find the one that works for you best in different situations.

Strategies of conflict resolution

A popular way of describing conflict resolution strategies is in terms of winning and losing.

These strategies can be broadly described as follows:

Win ‑ lose
The outcome of this strategy is that one party loses and one wins. In most cases this strategy is unsatisfactory, and in all probability the conflict will erupt at a later stage.

Lose ‑ lose
Both parties lose in the deal: usually a third party is involved, and tries to reach a compromise that is seldom acceptable to either of the parties.

Both parties are satisfied with the outcome, and the focus is on solving the problem and not defeating each other.

In negotiating a solution to a conflict situation the aim of the resolution process should always be to strengthen the future relationship of the parties involved.

The conflict situation can have mutual advantages and benefits if approached in the right manner, and with the right attitude towards a possible resolution.

Striving for a win ‑ win strategy so that both parties can be satisfied with the outcome is the ideal route for a school head to follow. Conflicts should be solved democratically. Make use of a mediator when necessary.

But remember, a school with a lot of conflict on important issues is not a happy and healthy one. As head, it is your role to ensure the smooth running of the school and, as leader, you must motivate your team to such an extent that conflicts are minimal.

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