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Options In Conflict Management System Design

This article was first published in Workplace News, Volume 8, Issue 5, May 2002 (Workplace News is a publication of Canada Law Book Inc., Aurora, Ontario)

It is an understatement to say managing conflict is a major task for organizations. Besides the energy and time spent, the high financial, emotional and other costs of dealing with conflict have enormous impact on the workplace. As a consequence of the pervasiveness and cost of conflict, effective conflict management has increasingly become a major objective for private and public sectors alike. Some organizations name conflict management as a competency, assessing managers’ proficiency in developing working relationships that prevent and resolve disputes in the workplace. How to help managers (and other staff) become proficient may be accomplished in a number of ways, including through conflict management systems that provide multiple options and access points for users.

In recent years, many organizations have implemented programs that provide a range of mechanisms to address workplace disputes. The growth of this specialized area of organizational development is likely due to a combination of factors such as the expanding field of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), including the use of interest-based mediation, grievance mediation, arbitral processes and a shift in management philosophy that encourages employees to more actively participate in decisions that have an impact on them.

While union workplaces have had grievance procedures in place for years, many have added other structures to address conflict in the workplace, such as between co-workers and managerial conflicts. Some non-union organizations take a page from union workplaces in terms of providing a model for managing conflict that gives employees the opportunity to address perceived injustices. In designing systems for non-union workplaces, processes also consider co-worker and managerial disputes. Methods to address disputes that range from statutory-based complaints to matters relating to destructive and counterproductive communications and interrelations are increasingly contemplated by both union and non-union workplaces.

Six of the various models of conflict management were recently examined from a theoretical perspective 1. Among the units of theory considered, the types of processes for addressing disputes were compared. The systems provide interest-, rights- and power-based mechanisms. Interest-based processes include internal or external mediation, peer advisors, ombuds, facilitation, conflict resolution training and coaching. The focus of this article is on conflict coaching as a preventative and transformative form of interest-based dispute resolution for management and staff.

A partial definition of coaching by the International Coach Federation: “Professional coaching is an ongoing partnership that helps clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives. Through the process of coaching, clients deepen their learning, improve their performance, and enhance their quality of life.”

There are many different types of coaching such as life skills, business, team and executive coaching. There is also a wide range of niche coaching for career transitions, spiritual growth, work-life balance, etc.

Conflict coaching is a specialized niche and a dispute resolution technique that unites the fundamentals of coaching and conflict management. The objective of this process is to help people one-on-one, to develop and improve the way they deal with workplace conflict. The context in which the need arises is variable and the wide application adds to the options that can be made available to management and staff. Conflict coaching applies not only to the workplace and it is notable, at least anecdotally, that the insights and skills gained through conflict coaching for either personal or professional reasons, apply to all areas of people’s lives.

Individuals may choose conflict coaching when they are experiencing wear and tear from the anger and dissatisfaction (theirs and others) from facing disputes on a regular basis. This applies whether people are involved in disputes, or whether they are routinely refereeing others. When individuals find that they are consistently avoiding conflict or engaged in workplace disputes that leave them exhausted, discouraged and unproductive, conflict coaching assists people in many ways. For example:

  • to gain insight into their conflict management style;
  • to examine their patterns of communicating and reacting;
  • to better understand their own triggers and reactions and consider those of others;
  • to identify individuals’ attribution tendencies and contributory behaviour;
  • to develop mutual problem-solving techniques;
  • to explore and practise ways of shifting habitual reactions to more effective responses;
  • to prepare for a mediation; and
  • to obtain support through conflictual situations

    Although conflict coaching aims to help people improve the way they deal with conflict in general, this technique is also used to facilitate problem-solving of specific disputes. That is, coaches help prepare clients for a mediation and/or to approach the other party, in order to work through their differences. An interest-based approach involves the use of a coaching model along with principles familiar to people trained in mediation. For instance, clients are helped to articulate their perspective, identify their concerns, needs and interests, define the issues and develop and evaluate options for settling differences. This model of coaching also uses a methodical process for analyzing these variables and helping clients learn and practise ways for approaching, interacting and responding to the other party.

    The availability of ongoing support through coaching, helps to sustain a culture that accepts conflict as inevitable and integral to achieving positive change and relationships.

    Whether conflict coaching is incorporated as one of the processes in a dispute resolution program, or is otherwise made available to staff, the benefits are many. Its preventative application cannot be overstated whether or not a system is in place. It also provides a transformative opportunity that lets people improve their conflict management skills and competency, turning negative experiences into positive learning and growth.

    End Notes

    Conbere, J., “Theory Building for Conflict Management System Design”, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Vol.19, No.2, Winter 2001, 215-235.


    Cinnie Noble

    Cinnie Noble is a certified coach (PCC) and mediator and a former lawyer specializing in conflict management coaching. She is the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You. MORE >

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