This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 is also available to read.
Twenty years ago, I read an excellent book authored by scholars from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI; 1996) at UCLA. In describing a social-change model of leadership development, they identified ability to engage in “controversy with civility” as an essential element. Conflict
, they suggested, often implies competition or disagreement that involves potential aggression, and the term frequently conjures up the notion of winners and losers. Controversy, on the other hand, implies disagreement that has potential for positive outcome resulting in a solution that is beneficial to all.
For controversy with civility to occur, observed the scholars, parties to the disagreement must accept two fundamental premises: 1) Differences of viewpoint are inevitable, and 2) resolution of opposing points of view requires that both positions be aired honestly but with civility and openness. Whether one uses “conflict” or “controversy with civility” when referring to disagreement, both terms, it should be noted, describe natural and normal processes which, when managed well, can lead to creative problem solving. This is particularly true when problem solving occurs in an atmosphere of civility, collaboration, and with intent to achieve common purpose. Successful negotiation of either conflict or controversy requires listening well and setting ground rules—rules of engagement—that provide a platform for acceptable conduct and interaction. You don’t have to be mean to be a leader!
The relevance of the HERI publication I refer to above resonates even more for me today as I consider the political rhetoric surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. I passionately believe that positive and effective leadership only occurs in a context of civility, ethical conduct, and professionalism. Some years ago, I developed the acronym PEAK—Principled, Ethical, Authentic, and Kind—to describe that kind of leadership.
Leading with civility and kindness is not a sign of weakness, nor is it a philosophical abstraction. Rather, it is living and leading by a durable code of moral and principled behavior that is applied in everyday life. True leadership calls for strong commitment to ethical conduct and ability to empathize with others. As I reflect on some of the comments made during the current campaign season, I am reminded of a quote by Eric Hoffer, who said, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength,” and another quote by Tennessee Williams, who quipped, “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” Not all conflicts are created equal
In my work as a consultant, mastering the skills of conflict negotiation often tops the list of skill-building requests. While many of us recognize that conflict can be a positive experience when it is addressed directly, we often avoid it, especially if a situation has evolved over time and bad feelings have built up, resulting in a breakdown of communication and damaged relationships. In some cases, individuals avoid dealing with conflict because they lack the requisite skills or are unable to create the emotional “safe space” needed for effective dialogue and conflict resolution.
Other reasons for avoiding conflict include believing that mentioning the conflict or attempting to resolve it may put one’s position or job at risk. Not all conflicts are created equal. Some may be resolved with a brief conversation that clears up misunderstandings, but others require work, energy, and willingness to revisit a painful issue. It is important, therefore, to decide which conflicts to address and which ones to let go.
Effective conflict negotiation requires that you carefully analyze your level of interest in the other party, and how important it is to you to resolve the conflict. For example, if the issue is not of high interest to you or you are not deeply vested in the other party, the effort required to resolve the conflict may not be worth it. However, if the issue is of high interest to you and you are also highly vested in your relationship with the other party, it is probably in your best interest to attempt to resolve the problem, especially if both parties care about the results. It’s important to realize that some problems or issues may never be resolved.
Ask yourself these questions
Before engaging in conflict negotiation, ask yourself the following questions: How important is your relationship with the other person? If you are able to resolve the conflict, how much will it affect your working relationship now and in the future? If you don’t address the conflict, will it negatively affect your ability to work with this person now and in the future? How likely is it that the conflict will be resolved and the relationship improved? What are the potential costs and benefits of addressing the situation?
Once you have carefully considered these questions and have decided to address the conflict, it is important to reflect and consider how you may have contributed to the situation. Many times, people will say, “I had nothing to do with this conflict, and the other person is to blame for the problem.” In most cases, this is not a true assessment. Even when it might be true, it’s still important to consider the other person’s point of view regarding your role. Doing so will help you develop an understanding of that person’s perspective. Cynthia “Cindy” Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN,
nurse consultant for ATI Nursing Education, founder of Civility Matters, and author of Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education, is a psychiatric nurse/therapist and an expert in fostering civility and healthy workplaces.
Higher Education Research Institute. (1996). A social change model of leadership development guidebook. Version III. Los Angeles, CA: Author.