One skill that cannot be taught through traditional means is conflict resolution. With the amount of personalities (many high-strung and passionate) that are in the fire service, conflict is inevitable. Many leaders seek to limit and avoid conflict however, the one constant about a conflict is that it takes being passionate or defensive about the position to have a conflict. This reality leaves an opportunity for the leader that knows how to capitalize on the passion behind the conflict to reach a mutually beneficial solution.
Some of the benefits to a properly handled conflict include:
Increased understanding through mutual exploration of both sides of the problem
Increased group cohesion by maintaining lines of respect that reinforce the ability to work together
Improved self-assessment by making individuals use critical thinking to look at their own perceptions
Although there are positive outcomes to a properly handled resolution, the hazards of an improperly handled resolution make it intimidating for new supervisors to attempt. The good news about failing at a conflict resolution is that there will always be another chance to try it again. A word of caution though, every failed attempt makes it a bigger challenge to get both parties back to the middle in order to make it a positive experience.
In order to prevent the damaging results of a failed attempt, supervisors need to understand certain aspects of the conflict resolution theories.
Excerpt taken from MindTools.com:
In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style. However they also noted that different styles were most useful in different situations. They developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) which helps you to identify which style you tend towards when conflict arises.
Thomas and Kilmann’s styles are:
Competitive: People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things like position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability. This style can be useful when there is an emergency and a decision needs to be make fast; when the decision is unpopular; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.
Collaborative: People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important. This style is useful when a you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.
Compromising: People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, and the compromiser him- or herself also expects to relinquish something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming.
Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect on this “favor” you gave. However people may not return favors, and overall this approach is unlikely to give the best outcomes.
Avoiding: People tending towards this style seek to evade the conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible, when the controversy is trivial, or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. However in many situations this is a weak and ineffective approach to take.
The second theory is commonly referred to as the “Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach”. This type of conflict resolution respects individual differences while helping people avoid becoming too entrenched in a fixed position.
In resolving conflict using this approach, you follow these rules:
- Make sure that good relationships are the first priority: As far as possible, make sure that you treat the other calmly and that you try to build mutual respect. Do your best to be courteous to one-another and remain constructive under pressure.
- Keep people and problems separate: Recognize that in many cases the other person is not just “being difficult” – real and valid differences can lie behind conflicting positions. By separating the problem from the person, real issues can be debated without damaging working relationships.
- Pay attention to the interests that are being presented: By listening carefully you’ll most-likely understand why the person is adopting his or her position.
- Listen first; talk second: To solve a problem effectively you have to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position.
- Set out the “Facts”: Agree and establish the objective, observable elements that will have an impact on the decision.
- Explore options together: Be open to the idea that a third position may exist, and that you can get to this idea jointly.
Although understanding the theories is an important aspect, the best thing a fire officer can do is be the mediator and action player to make things happen. Much like fighting fire, early detection and mitigation prevents minor conflicts from expanding beyond control and destroying everything in its path. Ultimately, look for opportunities to capitalize on the passion behind the conflict and turn a negative situation into a positive force.