A common misunderstanding is that conflict is in some way a breakdown of normality, as if life is mainly about harmony and consensus. But, in reality, conflict is part of everyday life. The reason we do not notice it most of the time is that we are generally very skilled and effective at dealing with these conflicts by using our interpersonal skills. Good social workers and managers use the skills they use in practice every day to take their conflict management abilities to a higher level.
Tips for managing conflict
Being able to listen effectively is a basic requirement for successful conflict management. This applies in three ways:
- Not being listened to can cause or exacerbate conflict. Not listening to someone is disrespectful and can therefore lead to feelings of being slighted, which can then lead to irritability, anger and/or friction. Try to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be listened to.
- It is often the case when people are in conflict that they become so intent on getting across what they are trying to say that they stop listening to the other person. There is then a danger of a vicious circle developing in which neither party is listening to the other and each is therefore getting annoyed with the other for not listening to them. Somebody else may be able to break this deadlock and create the right circumstances for the warring factions to listen to one another and to make sure that they do so.
- Very often all that is needed to resolve a conflict situation is for the listening to start. For example, someone who is angry and is becoming aggressive is likely to start calming down if they feel they are being listened to, that their concerns are being taken seriously and they are therefore being affirmed or validated as people.
Conflict situations can generate intense feelings, so it is important to be able to “tune in” to those feelings and work skilfully with them – an example of what has come to be known as “emotional intelligence” (Howe, 2008). If we are not able to do this, then we run the risk that emotions may run so high that the situation gets out of hand.
Problem-solving skills are an important part of a social worker’s repertoire at all times but are especially important at times of significant conflict. If you have good problem-solving skills you can:
- Prevent conflict situations from escalating; and
- Deal appropriately with the problems caused by conflict which can then lead to a vicious circle arising (for example, if conflict results in certain people being less productive or less committed, this can cause bad feelings which can then make the conflict worse).
Credibility and confidence
Showing that you listen and take steps to problem solve gives you credibility as someone who can deal with conflict, and you can take confidence from incidents where you have demonstrated this into conflict situations. This can be especially relevant when working with people from other agencies. There is still sometimes a stereotypical view of social workers and feeling ‘looked down on’ to a certain extent. Sometimes we don’t feel listened to or respected.
If you are aware that this may in itself cause tension and go into multidisciplinary meetings confident about your skills in dealing with these situations, it can help establish credibility.