We can't get away from it — almost everywhere you look, from the medical office to the hospital to home, wherever people are involved, conflict can erupt. So it is not the presence of conflict that is critical; it is the ability to resolve it in a productive and healthy manner that matters most. "Productive" means that the resolution leads to positive change. "Healthy" means that we are preserving, or even improving the relationship. Both are important. And if conflict is left unresolved, much like a wound that goes untreated, it can fester, grow, and lead to more damage.
The good news is that it is relatively easy for a physician to learn effective conflict resolution skills. Of course the challenge is putting them into practice. The more you practice, the easier it becomes, and, like so many other skills, the better you get at it. As we explore some basic conflict resolution skills, it is helpful to understand what happens to people during these challenging encounters so that we can develop successful strategies.
Our brains are wired to quickly and effectively attend to potential threats in our environment. When conflict arises, for whatever reason, it causes people to feel a sense of threat. Emotions get triggered, our flight or flight systems goes into action, and our limbic system gets activated. The stronger the feeling of threat, the less able we are to think clearly and rationally, see the situation from our staff's or patient's perspective, problem solve, and collaborate. Our executive brain starts to shut down right at the time when we need it most. With this scenario in mind, here are five steps to healthy conflict resolution:
As a physician, it is important to stay tuned into what is going on for you emotionally. The earlier you are aware of getting emotionally triggered, the better able you are to recognize and manage your emotions in a productive manner. And the more self-aware you are, the better you can identify the types of experiences that tend to be your triggers. This allows you to proactively prepare for managing these stressful situations in a positive manner.
Before you even attempt to engage in conflict resolution, you need to be in a state of mind that is most conducive to this process. That means calming your emotions so that you can be open to another person's perspective. If you are able to catch your feelings before they get too strong, then you can name the feeling, which often has the effect of lessening its intensity. Other strategies to manage your emotions include taking a few slow deep breaths, modifying negative, disruptive thoughts (for example, if you hear yourself having thoughts like "always" and "never," you know you might be seeing things as black or white), and reminding yourself that there is more than one perspective of the situation.
3. Get curious
Rather than looking for who might be right (usually we are convinced that we are the right ones) and who might be wrong (must be the other person), look for differing perspectives. ASK rather than TELL. Be genuinely interested and curious about how the other party perceives the situation and about what matters to them. Asking about and acknowledging the other person's point of view is one of the fasted and easiest ways to de-escalate conflict. Listen to understand — rather than listening so you can come back with a quick response.
4. Appreciate differences
When we remove blame from the equation, then it is easier to understand differing perspectives. Just like your emotions get triggered during conflict, be aware that you can unintentionally trigger negative emotions in others. Understand that because no two brains are alike, the emotions you are experiencing may be different from the other person's — and vice versa. Notice not just what he is saying, notice what feelings are being communicated nonverbally. Be aware of what you might be communicating nonverbally.
5. Focus on one issue at a time
When you are in a conflict situation and your emotions are triggered, it can be easy to start piling on all the things that you are upset with this person about. Stick to the issue at hand; avoid blame, criticism, and attack. ASK — Seek the other person's perspective; CLARIFY — so you are sure you have it right; ACKNOWLEDGE — share your understanding about how the other person sees it, even if you don't agree with that perspective. Acknowledge her feelings as well. Then share your perspective as objectively as possible.
Using these key physician communication skills will result in healthier and more productive conflict resolution — so that you can facilitate positive change and improve your relationships — with staff, with patients, and with medical colleagues.
Catherine Hambley, PhD, is an organizational psychologist who leverages brain science to promote effectiveness and positive change in her work with organizations, teams, and leaders. In addition to her extensive background in healthcare, she has worked across a wide array of industries, from Fortune 100 companies to non-profit organizations. She may be reached at [email protected] or Leapfrogconsulting.net.