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What is Conflict and Why Does it Happen?

This is part one in a two-part series on conflict resolution in the workplace.

By Tanna R. Thomason, RN, MS, CCRN, contributor

Conflict happens when there is an opposition, a difference in opinion or a struggle. It can occur when relationships are not in balance. Conflict may happen as a result of opposing viewpoints.

It is inevitable that conflict will be present throughout both our professional and personal lives. We must remember that no two people think alike or feel alike on everything, especially when working in a hectic hospital environment.

The purpose of this article is to discuss various myths surrounding the topic of conflict along with a description of some expanded points of view to use when approaching conflict. In Part II, we will explore your personal conflict resolution style along with a few new tools to help you handle these tough situations.

Myths about Conflict

A myth is a belief that is not based on fact or has been passed down to us without a strong foundation of validity. If you believe in any of the following conflict myths, please challenge yourself to consider a different point of view:

  • Myth #1: Conflict is Negative

Example: Sarah, a nurse manager with three years of experience on a busy pediatric unit, has always believed that conflict can only produce poor outcomes. Based on past experiences both at home and at work, she simply avoids conflict and attempts to make others happy. Sarah has an underlying belief (and fear) that if discussed openly, the conflict will only further divide her relationships with others.

Expanded Point of View: Conflict can actually be constructive and may generate new solutions to unresolved problems. By embracing and confronting conflict, new ideas and stronger relationships may result.

  • Myth #2: Conflict is a contest where “blame” and “fault” must be assigned before an agreement can be reached.

Example: Jessie is a manager who runs a tight ship; everyone is clear on the rules of the unit along with individual roles and responsibilities. When conflict arises, it must be resolved as soon as possible with a confrontational dialogue.  When allowing each person to discuss their point of view, Jessie listens to the conversation and then clearly articulates who is a fault and who is correct.  Jessie believes it is important to be clear on what is right and what is wrong. In her opinion, assigning fault is essential for the full resolution of the conflict, thus allowing staff to move forward.

Expanded Point of View:  Being right and placing blame on another person does NOT enhance your social status, nor is it required to resolve a conflict.  In conflict between two people, you may both be at fault and you may both have creative ideas for resolving the conflict. . .So let’s just move past the unnecessary finger pointing!

  • Myth #3:  Conflict will take care of itself

Example: Michelle hates situations involving conflict and does not believe the nurse manager should get in the middle of issues between staff members. She believes that staff members are mature adults and should work things out among themselves. On a personal level, Michelle also believes that if she avoids the conflict, it will help to preserve her reputation as a fair and well-liked manager.

Expanded Point of View: Left alone, conflict does not typically resolve itself.  Since many people use the “avoidance” style when conflict is present, it is no wonder that the conflict is left unresolved. If not discussed, conflict might be shelved but is rarely forgotten. At some time in the future, the nurse may decide to “un-shelf” the conflict and layer it upon a newer problem, making conflict resolution increasingly difficult. Unresolved conflict generally leads to decreased morale, communication and productivity.

Below are some additional expanded perspectives to help you think “out of the box” on the subject of conflict:

  • There are several good answers or solutions for one problem; conflict releases energy that can produce positive and constructive results.
  • Conflict can be synergistic and can be a positive motivator for new and innovative solutions.
  • Listening is the key. Really listen to what is being said. Meet your initial feeling of “resistance” with a deep breath and an increased effort to understand the other person’s point of view. Listen carefully (step away from your personal emotions) and summarize what you just heard.
  • If you were wrong, go ahead and share this. We all make mistakes.  Admitting fault will enhance your status and respect among peers and colleagues.
  • Conflict is an opportunity for growth. Although very uncomfortable for most of us, conflict is a vehicle for new dialogue, new understandings and new creative solutions.

In summary, conflict is viewed as not only inevitable, but as a natural condition of our social phenomenon.  Conflict is necessary if people and organizations are to change, modify and adapt.  Are you able to embrace conflict? 

Tanna Thomason is a clinical nurse specialist at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, California and is a member of the adjunct faculty at Point Loma Nazarene University.

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