Conflict Can Be Managed

by Janet M. Powers

One of the things MSAC trainers do in our annual Conflict Resolution Workshop is to explore styles of handling conflict. Although most individuals have a typical way of approaching a dispute, we learned that our responses to conflict vary greatly depending on the situation. A person who normally prefers not to make waves may in fact become an angry parent if he/she feels that a child is being mistreated. Someone who flies off the handle at the smallest thing may be willing to compromise quietly if he/she can see a way to improve a bad situation.

In doing a similar exercise with prisoners a few years ago, we surprised most of the participants, who had thought themselves highly aggressive because they often got into fights. Instead, these men discovered that they were much more likely not to assert themselves, and instead to hold in their anger until finally it became too much and they exploded. The big lesson for them was the importance of sharing their feelings in a non-provocative way before things got out of hand.

In addition to exploring conflict styles, we also practice “laundering language.” Because mediators have to master the art of saying things in a neutral way that will build trust, workshop participants learn to ask questions without accusing and to employ “I” messages when expressing feelings. These are skills which are useful to employers as well as parents, skills in fact that anyone who works with the public can benefit from.

Another part of MSAC’s Conflict Resolution Workshop focuses on listening skills. Although most people think they listen just fine (assuming their hearing is intact), it’s surprising for our workshop participants to discover that they are often guilty of responding with “communication blockers,” which tend to cut off conversation rather than encourage it. Instead, we learn to employ active listening techniques which help to open up communication, both with words and with body language.

Before workshop participants get down to the nitty gritty of formal mediation skills, we also work on the biases which all of us carry, sometimes unconsciously. We may be “allergic” to certain body shapes, particular ethnic backgrounds, or unusual modes of dress. Expressing disapproval, however, is something a mediator must never do, so we learn to control those feelings and to not express them in any way, in order to be able to work with all who seek our services.

Most of these skills have to be practiced over and over again to be effective. But those who put them to use discover that mastering good communication skills improves their relations with colleagues, employers, neighbors and friends. Mediation Services offers a short course (3 hours) in Dealing with Conflict and Communication Skills for any workplace or organization that might benefit from a brief workshop. The cost for two trainers to provide conflict management training custom designed for your group is $35. Acquiring the skills to create a harmonious environment should not cost a fortune!

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Janet M. Powers is MSAC Presiding Officer and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.