Managing Conflict in Law Practice and Life

"To think is to differ." (Clarence Darrow)

What's Good About Conflict. As Clarence Darrow pointed out, conflict is part of being human. The good news is that conflict is not all bad. For one thing, it means you are not surrounded by "yes" people. And those differences of opinion can fuel innovation and creative problem solving. Effectively managing conflict or dissent can be beneficial in a wide range of situations, both inside your organization, with clients and in dealings with third parties.

Researchers who study small-group interaction would like you to embrace conflict. They have found that most groups make decisions, to their disadvantage, based on information members share, overlooking contrarians. A culture of open dissent, where people are free to speak out and consensus is not imposed, is the ideal environment for good decision-making.

Of course the bad news is that conflict, whatever its value, can take a toll on you and on your department's collegiality and efficiency. So here are some guidelines for dealing with conflict.

"Seek First to Understand," as Stephen Covey exhorts in his best-sellerThe Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. View conflict as an opportunity to learn what's important to the other party and also understand what your own priorities are.

Stick to Business. Try to keep differences of opinion focused on the problem at hand and not on individuals. Differing opinions are often interpreted as personal attacks. The goal is "task conflict," fighting over the best solution, rather than "relationship conflict," translating differences of opinion into differences in character.

Look for the Leadership Opportunity. A recent study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership found that effective leadership has changed over the last five years. Eighty-four percent of those polled said leaders in 2006 are valued for collaboration skills, such as building and mending relationships, rather than solitary heroics, or "doing whatever it takes," the standard in 2000. Specifically important is being able to "enhance co-worker relationships." This change is due, according to those surveyed, to the more far-flung demands of leadership, which often go beyond an individual's capability, creating a need to work interdependently with others across boundaries -- geographic, language, cultural, and expertise.

Use the Other Person's Style Preferences. Using Myers-Briggs terminology, introverts prefer to process information privately before coming to a conclusion, while extraverts "think out loud," solving the problem as they talk. Thinkers want data and expertise to make decisions, while feelers are swayed by personal dynamics. But you don't have to know technical jargon to discern another's preferences. "Bottom-liners" are most interested in what the next step will be, while "processors" want to review and understand the history of the problem.

Avoid "Triangulation." Talking to someone other than the person with whom you have the issue is a common but ineffective response to conflict. If the CEO's assistant or the partner's secretary insists on first reviewing or revising every product you submit, talking to the CEO or partner is unlikely to solve and may worsen the problem. A better strategy is to discuss the issue directly with the interloper: "It seems that we have different impressions of how best to submit work to X. You know his/her preferences, but I would like to avoid the delay of another review and get his/her comments directly. How can we work this out?"

Try to Find Commonalities. Can you relate to the other person's perfectionism, need for control or other attributes? Do you share similar goals, values, concerns? Try to build bridges on those commonalities. " I see we both would like the procedures for hiring outside consultants to be more explicit."

Don't Ignore Emotions. Acknowledging and trying to understand emotions helps establish trust and may point to a resolution. "You sound upset. What exactly made you so angry?" "If I had known what was bothering you, I wouldn't have reacted that way." Also acknowledge your own feelings. "This delay has been very frustrating for me." At the same time, try not to take the dispute personally or use it to make personal accusations.

Apologize. Yes, apologize. In the recently evolving "law of apology," a number of states protect expressions of contrition made in personal injury cases against discovery. In addition to recognizing this humane touch, courts have found such statements, unlike deny-and-defend strategies, actually improve chances of settlement. Apologizing is not capitulating, just recognizing you did not intend at least some of the results, such as the expense or anger. "I'm sorry this made you so angry. It was never my intention to make you look bad."

Expand the Ways You Deal with Conflict. Most of us get stuck in a couple of reflexive responses to conflict, even though the circumstances and stakes vary greatly. Expanding your conflict resolution approaches can be critical to success.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument identifies five methods for handling conflict, each with different levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness. The executives tested to formulate the assessment's norm utilize collaboration the most, then compromising and competing, followed by avoidance and accommodation, suiting the best technique to the situation at hand.

In contrast, lawyers tend to use only two methods -- competing and avoiding. Trained in advocacy, lawyers are natural competitors. Lawyers also tend to be "thinkers" in Myers-Briggs terminology, i.e. they are more concerned with logic and expertise than relationships and feelings, making them less inclined to collaborate or accommodate. However, many conflicts, particularly those involving valuable relationships, suffer from competitive attempts at resolution. "Winning" an argument with your boss or spouse can be the first step towards losing the war.

Avoidance is the other method lawyers routinely use to deal with conflict. "If I don't acknowledge it, I won't have to fight over it" is an understandable response when your conflict resolution skills are limited and you don't really want to "beat" the other person, or risk "losing." Avoidance is also the conflict mode of choice for many introverts, which lawyers overwhelmingly are. The problem is that avoidance usually resolves nothing.

Adding even one of these approaches to your repertoire can increase your conflict resolution rates.

1. "Might makes right." Competing, both assertive and uncooperative, is a power mode that uses whatever tactics -- argument, rank, money -- "win". You may be "standing up for justice" or simply trying to come out on top. Competing is useful when quick, decisive action is vital or unpopular action has to be taken. Without some competitive spirit, you may not be effectively standing behind your ideas. However, competitors often have trouble building cohesive teams, and must learn to back down when "winning at all costs" is not the best strategy and to ask for information in order to learn and adapt.

2. "Kill your enemies with kindness." Accommodating, unassertive and cooperative, is the opposite of competing, subjugating one's own concerns to the concerns of others. You may be selflessly generous or simply defer to the pecking order. This approach is useful when the relationship is more valuable than the issue, when you are outmatched and further conflict would only do more damage to your cause, when workplace harmony is a priority, to demonstrate reasonableness or to allow others to learn from mistakes. However, repeated accommodation can devalue your influence.

3. "Leave well-enough alone." Avoiding, unassertive and uncooperative, denies, sidesteps or withdraws from conflict instead of pursuing the parties' concerns. The issue may not be worth the time or trouble required to resolve it, may have extremely low resolution prospects or might benefit from a delay -- for cooling down or gathering information. Some avoidance of conflict is useful to maintaining good relations and keeping a workload manageable. However, high avoidance can debilitate coordination because of lack of feedback, produce an environment of paralysis, exacerbate tensions and result in decisions by default.

4. "Two heads are better than one." Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative, the opposite of avoiding. Collaboration attempts to find a solution that addresses the concerns of all parties, working through feelings, identifying perspectives, values or goals, and achieving buy-in. Collaboration produces commitment and loyalty through joint gain. Collaboration takes time and energy, however, and the process can be taken advantage of. Advocacy-focused lawyers may have trouble engaging in collaboration and be skeptical of its success.

5. "Split the difference." Compromising is intermediate in assertiveness and cooperativeness, providing an expedient, mutually acceptable solution that usually involves the parties giving up more than in collaboration but less than in accommodation, while addressing the issues more directly than in avoidance. Compromise is useful under time pressure, if the parties are well-matched and strongly opposed, if other approaches have failed or the conflict is part of a more complex situation that requires more time and effort. However, too much compromising can create an environment of gamesmanship that loses sight of larger issues, like fairness and long-term objectives.

Further Strategies. If you find that your organization, department or practice group is plagued with these interpersonal conflicts, or you want to jumpstart a cultural change, consider professionally identifying each of your work styles. A number of different assessments -- Calipers, Birkman Method, Myers-Briggs, Gallup Strengths, and Thomas-Kilmann, among others -- can produce insights that dramatically improve communication and working relationships.

If you feel stumped personally over recurring conflicts, consider hiring a coach. Coaching is a highly useful tool for career enhancement generally and the right coach can raise your conflict skills. Having a coach doesn't mean you're a loser who needs a crutch. Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers, attests to coaching's effectiveness in improving his productivity and interpersonal skills.

Finally, research has discovered a surprisingly simple way to keep task conflict from becoming relationship conflict: establish trust. Since satisfactorily addressing conflict can raise exponentially the trust between parties, the more conflicts people work through, the more they trust each other, making them more able to raise and handle disputes.

By resolving conflict more effectively, you can reap the benefits of different opinions while ultimately improving your relationships and your organization's success.

A Checklist for Resolving Conflict

1. If at all possible, set up a face-to-face meeting. Lower your tone, reduce your pace of speaking, look the other person in the eye, uncross your arms.

2. Start with a succinct, neutral review of the bidding -- just in case there is an errant email or unfortunate subordinate's comment that someone doesn't know about. "You asked us to prepare a report on outside counsel fees. We delivered a draft last Wednesday. Your assistant sent an email saying it was not sufficient. We asked for a meeting." If you can't give an entirely neutral chronology, move on.

3. Ask the other person to thoroughly explain his/her position. Listen carefully and inquire as to anything that is unclear.

4. Summarize what you have heard, including acknowledging the other party's values (particularly those you also hold) and any emotions involved. "We share a concern for finishing this project as expeditiously as possible." "I can see you are angry about this mix-up."

5. Ask whether you have correctly paraphrased the other person's position. "Is there anything I missed?"

6. Recite your rendition of what happened. While you can acknowledge your emotions -- "I am embarrassed about how this makes us look" -- try not to actually display emotions. Avoiders respond by disengaging, and competitors are not moved.

7. Review points of agreement and also disagreement. Do not minimize the conflict. Name it honestly and explore it, even introducing third party opinions and "devil's advocates" to expand the range of viewpoints.

8. Explore a resolution, referring to any common values or goals. "One of my department's/firm's priorities is having good working relationships with its outside advisors. We would like to resolve this by having your reports delivered in a timelier manner. If you will agree to an earlier deadline, we will commit to making our people available."

9. Appeal to the other person's personal/work styles. For example, logic and data is usually persuasive to competitors and thinkers generally and lawyers and accountants specifically.

10. Remember the old Buddhist mantra to "detach from the outcome." A forced "resolution" is unlikely to be effective. Be open to an unanticipated solution.

11. Offer to reconvene at a different time and place to follow up, allowing introverts to privately formulate their opinion.

Provided by Ronda Muir, Esq, a Senior Consultant with Robin Rolfe Resources.