In Pooh’s “Huffalump” movie, Roo asks, “’Scuse me, what’s a heffalump?” Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, and Eeyore sing a song about the horrible qualities that they believe heffalumps possess (three heads, fiery eyes, spiked tails, etc.).
When presented with a difficult task or situation, we often find ourselves in conflict about how to deal with it. The Chinese word for conflict or crisis consists of two symbols: danger and opportunity. When we are faced with difficult moments, we must remember we have a choice. How we manage that choice often determines the outcome of the situation. In audiology, we are often faced with conflict ranging from difficult hearing aid fitting and counseling sessions to negotiating with vendors. Sometimes we have conflicts internally in our office or conflicts regarding professional issues in our membership organizations.
Conflict often makes us think of a negative experience that did not go well. We must remember, however, that conflict is not a bad thing but an opportunity for both personal and professional growth. Think about how boring meetings and conversations would be if people did not speak up and share their thoughts and ideas. If conflict is handled right, then there are benefits that you might not expect such as:
• Better understanding of the issues and the opportunity to expand your awareness to the situation.
• Increased trust among your team members and colleagues. People feel safe to express themselves, allowing an opportunity for growth.
• Enhanced self-awareness due to being more aware of your goals and thoughts on how to be an effective leader and team member.
Handling conflict, however, does not necessarily come easily for most. Here are some key strategies that leaders use every day to help prevent and/or defuse conflict to allow for productive opportunities or engaged conversations.
When dealing with difficult moments:
• Focus on the process. It is not about the people, it is about the system or process.
• Go “below the line” for a collaborative approach for conflict resolution. Imagine an iceberg. You can only see the top, which is usually only 10 percent of it. To navigate the waters, you need to know what is below the sea line, the other 90 percent, to be safe.
• Listen first and then ask questions for understanding. Remember restate, rephrase, and summarize when trying to gain understanding and trust.
• Create options collaboratively. Be open to ideas.
• Negotiate what options would solve the conflict.
When dealing with conflict, it is important to consider when do you take action and who should have the conversation. To answer when—the sooner the better. Addressing unprofessional behaviors, engaging with the dissatisfied patients, and/or intervening before people forget are essential to maintaining accountability, employee satisfaction and retention, and minimizing potential liabilities. To answer who—anyone in most cases. Regardless of the title, anyone should be able to talk to us and share ideas without feeling minimized or degraded. If the leaders blink or if the culture is of the mindset “it doesn’t matter, can’t change it…,” then it is important for the leadership to step in and be a role model on how to resolve conflict or better yet create a culture where conflict is considered to be an opportunity not a negative event.
To learn more about your conflict style, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a widely used instrument that provides helpful information on your conflict style. The conflict styles are Competitive, Collaborative, Compromising, Accommodating, and Avoiding. Different situations call for different conflict styles, so knowing what domains you typically prefer will be helpful.
I encourage you to take Roo’s direction and instead of being scared of conflict, look for the heffalump yourself and discover that often the many traits outlined are things that are not true or can be negotiated.
So, you ask, how do I negotiate these uncharted waters? Next, Leadership Realities Part II will provide you with your compass.
Tamala Selke Bradham, PhD, CCC-A, is a quality consultant in the Department of Quality, Safety, and Risk Prevention at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 9, Hearing and Hearing Disorders in Childhood.