Leaders need to understand the emotional dimensions of conflict and minimize the inevitable anxiety and systematic stress. In a book published the year before his death in 2020, Peter L. Steinke, a respected leadership consultant, outlined nine beneficial ways to respond constructively to conflict.
In times of crisis, a system functions best when its key leaders regulate their anxiety. It is a crucial time for the community to slow down and reflect on what has happened. But the natural instinct is to do just the opposite, to press immediately for decisions, explanations, and actions to dispel the awful uncertainty and helplessness. To counter these and other disturbing consequences, leaders by their patience, hope, and reframing of the event can calm the people who are affected.
Conflict requires mature leaders who will deal with lots of immaturity, reactivity, and other survival behaviors. Uproar begs for attention. I have found these responses to be beneficial.
1. Respect the sheer strength of survival instincts.
The will to survive is extremely strong. Brains are constructed to react to threat first, not contemplate it. In the presence of high tensions, expect behavior to be substandard for a while. Being patient in order to move toward improvement, the leader will not make choices driven by the anxiety of the moment. Thoughtfulness will reappear as primitive instincts subside. First, however, the craziness will play itself out through blaming, misinforming, taking defensive action, shouting impassioned comments, repeating unfounded rumors, exaggerating events, and relying on worst-case consequences.
2. Seek clarity.
With misinformation, rumor, and exaggeration bouncing off the wall, confusion is always in attendance. Ask questions. Weigh whether information is reliable and congruent. But also remember that clarity won’t always be comfortable for everyone. Some people will wear emotional blinders. Stay on course. Ultimately, people prefer to hear the truth rather than distortion.
3. Observe behavior.
Imagine a person in your system who is a habitual complainer. No matter what the condition, issue, or topic, the person finds something wrong. But the complainer is only half the equation. In order for the carping to continue, others must reinforce it. For any conflict to continue and get out of control, a generator of anxiety and an amplifier are needed. They feed each other.
In the early stages of a conflict, it is almost impossible to overinform. As much information as possible is needed. Providing information tends to minimize the need for people to create information for themselves through gossip and embellishments of what they have heard. By communicating forthrightly, leaders also treat members as mature adults who can handle whatever information is shared, not as children who need to be protected from bad news.
5. Work with the healthy individuals.
To move beyond people’s survival instincts, leaders will be more successful when they work with the most mature, motivated people in the system. No one can pour insight into unmotivated people. The unmotivated individual may be on both sides of a conflict.
6. Structure a process.
An anxiety-infected system spreads anxiety in all directions. People increasingly become confused, angry, and disgusted, and they inch toward despair. The flow of anxiety needs to be contained, and nothing does this better than placing a structure over the anxiety-ridden field. When people sense that there will be an orderly process in place, they think things are not totally out of control. People yearn for clear and decisive action. When specific goals are followed, the people have confidence that the system has the means to get them out of the misery they have gotten into so they can move forward again. Good structure controls anxiety.
7. Reframe the situation.
Instead of anxiously bemoaning what’s happening, leaders can frame the situation as an opportunity for growth. Through this painful encounter, the system will emerge stronger, and they will know better ways to live together.
8. Build up the system’s positive emotional bank account.
Once a conflict subsides, leaders provide aftercare, which could embrace many options. Dr. Ed Friedman calls it focusing on strength, not pathology. Systems benefit from a steady flow of positive programs and supportive gatherings. When tensions threaten relationships, people can draw from the positive emotional investments as a resource to move past the pressing moment. People know that the system, even if in tension, is a safe place.
9. Bring in a third party.
Some conflict becomes so convoluted and emotional that those affected become entrenched in their “outside” bias. The parties involved in a dispute are too closely involved to get a wider view. To dislodge the ensuing impasse, an outside third party with a more objective set of eyes is needed. Select someone outside of the emotional system who can be fair and frank.
Conflict leaves things messy. The best solutions to insolvable problems are the approximate solutions, ones that prepare a system for new learning and a new beginning.
This material is excerpted from Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019) by Peter L. Steinke. Used by permission of the publisher. The book is available at Amazon.