Developing Conflict Competence

Recently, I interviewed a very kind and honest person – Suz Hinton. And in this interview, she shared with me why she left Microsoft.
It is a story of cultural and personality mismatch, gatekeeping and power play. You can listen to the whole interview here.

But, there is also something else that Suz describes. 
She talks about how she had to constantly give critical feedback. She also said this was new to her. So, she started to work on increasing her conflict competence.

Conflict Competence

Conflict competence is a fascinating topic to me as it highly relates to teamwork, collaboration and code reviews. 

But, how many have actually learned how to handle conflicts? Well, what about you? How often do you work on your conflict competence?

Maybe, let me first define conflict competence first: it’s the ability to develop and use your skills to create a productive outcome during conflict while reducing the likelihood of harm. 
You probably work on this competence indirectly, every time you face a conflict. During a conflict, your mind will start looking for positive solutions. But sometimes, that’s already too late.

And conflict competence makes or breaks a team’s success. 

So, what does it take to develop conflict competence?

It all starts by changing how we view conflict. Most of the time, the conflict has a negative connotation. But conflict, if handled productively, can be extremely beneficial, and changing your view on conflict is the start of the transformation.

In addition, it’s important to create a safe environment in which the team members know that what they say will not be used against them. To create such an environment, a team has to work on creating psychological safety. Note, the most successful teams are the ones with high psychological safety

Finally, it’s about approaches and strategies. Yes, successful conflict management can be learned. It starts by exploring how you can cool down even in a heated discussion. An example is through adopting breathing patterns that help you relax and release stress and anxiety. If that’s not working you have to understand how can you slow down, for example taking a break, leaving the room for a while, or continuing the discussion on a different day.

Also, you have to develop strategies to engage in conflict constructively. Engaging constructively has a lot to do with our ability to relate to others, how we phrase feedback and active listening.

Well, all steps are very involved and I can’t give you the whole recipe in a blog post. Teams and individuals have to work on increasing conflict competence on an ongoing basis.

An Exercise: Increasing Conflict Competency

Still, today, I want to share an exercise from my workshops with you, that helps you explore your current conflict attitude.

  1. Please write down the words that come to your mind when you hear the word “conflict”. 
  2. How do you and most of your colleagues respond to conflict?

If you want to do the exercise, only continue reading once you finished it.

So, congratulations on finishing the exercise. I bet most of the words that came to your mind for exercise one were similar to stress, frustration, anger or fear. Only a few people think about conflict as an opportunity or resolution.

For exercise 2, the most common answer is “we try to avoid it”. And while I believe avoidance is better than harm, this isn’t a good strategy because it leads to harm in the long run anyway. 

So, now I want you to answer two more questions:

  1. Think about a conflict that had a positive outcome. This might feel tricky. Don’t give up. I’m sure you will find one eventually.
  2. So, now that you found one, please analyze the conflict situation. Which types of behavior and approaches seemed to help move the conflict in a positive direction?  

How was this for you?

Probably, the exercises made you feel a bit uncomfortable. That’s because of the negative connotation of the subject, and the potentially negative experiences you had during conflicts.

Still, I hope you found out something interesting or it stirred up some thoughts.

If so, please leave a comment or send me an email!

Dr. Michaela Greiler

I help companies improve their software development processes, like code reviewing or software testing. I work for corporations such as Microsoft, but also help smaller businesses and start-ups to ensure a productive, satisfying and efficient software engineering process.

2 thoughts on “Developing Conflict Competence

  • March 5, 2020 at 09:48
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    Hello. American in Hamburg here. I listened to you on the Entrepreneurial Coder Podcast last night, and was interested in what you have to say about code reviews because it is such a thorny issue for me.

    I am very “konfliktscheu”, tend to give in very easily when we are debating on how many story points a particular ticket should have, and experience a bit of “fear” any time I receive a code review, particularly from a certain senior developer on our team. Aside – Sometimes I wonder if its an American (konfliktscheu) vs German (love to debate and have “un-fun” conversations ; ) ) thing.

    I did the exercises described in your post here, and I think they will help, so I will try to do them regularly. When I assume that the senior developer is trying to help us reach a higher standard and have better code in our code base, the code review is easier to read. That is how I am trying to look at it now. When I assume that he is desperate to show people what he can do or share his viewpoint by criticizing, then the review is obviously much harder to accept.
    So thanks for helping me take a different perspective on conflict. I am looking for to reading more posts of yours.

    Reply
    • March 14, 2020 at 11:13
      Permalink

      Hi Ryan,
      thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m super happy that the exercise helped you. I’m also quite “konfliktscheu” so I can relate.
      Especially during times like these, I see once again that it’s super important to work on our conflict competence. So, right now, I’m also in the middle of yet another heavy self-reflection and improvement cycle.
      Greetings from Austria to Germany!

      Reply

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