Overcoming Conflicts in the Lab—and Beyond

Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

This Web site is filled with examples of “soft skills” that aren’t taught in graduate school but that are absolutely necessary for a job in industry. I’ve written about some of these in the Tooling Up column: communication and presentation skills, the ability to network, negotiate, and work in a team, among others. You can get by with just a passing knowledge of some of these. Others you need to master if you want to do well in your career.

This month’s topic—the ability to resolve conflicts—is one of the latter. This soft skill is so important that I urge you to start working on it today so that you can master it while you are still in grad school or postdoctoral training. Otherwise you may find yourself, years from now, standing on a career plateau wondering why you’re not climbing higher.

As one who has had his career sidelined due to an inability to resolve conflicts, I am well qualified to discuss this month’s topic.

How an inability to resolve conflicts damaged my career

It took me far too long to “mature” in my career. I spent about 10 years in conflict after conflict, developing great friendships—and enemies—at each of my two places of work. Looking back on the effect of my early ignorance, I can see what the problem was. I was sure I was right and that being right was what mattered. “Humility is not my forte,” wrote novelist Margaret Halsey, “and whenever I dwell for any length of time on my own shortcomings, they gradually begin to seem mild, harmless, rather engaging little things; not at all like the glaring defects in other people’s characters.”

Perhaps you, too, feel a sense of “rightness” when confronted by, well, confrontation. If so, then welcome to the club. It’s a very large club.

When faced with conflict (or the possibility of conflict), people often choose one of two extreme responses. Some (as I did earlier in my career) try to win. Others try to avoid conflict by acquiescing or steering clear of the matter.

These responses rarely work. The trick is to meet conflict head on with the goal of managing it, not winning.

Conflict management by the emotional-rational-intuitive approach

I recently picked up a new book, Disagreements, Disputes, and All-Out War, by Gini Graham Scott (AMACOM), a writer and speaker who is often interviewed on this subject. Although some books on conflict management go far into heavy psychology, this one is practical and approachable.

In her book, Scott writes about what she calls the emotional-rational-intuitive (ERI) approach. It's a good way for a scientist to think about disputes. Very simply, Scott believes that the first step should be to get rid of the emotions behind the issue. Then, once the issue has been stripped of personal feelings, reason comes into play. Step two is a close examination of the issues behind the conflict. This rational thought process is then (in step three) supplemented by your intuition about the choices in front of you. You can't solve the problem without understanding the human needs and interests of the people involved in the conflict.

There’s enough elaboration of the ERI approach to fill a book--and it does. Here's a short description of the three steps in Scott's approach, along with some personal observations.

Removing emotion (First step)

It’s a lot easier to say “remove the emotion” than to do it. Conflicts are infused with emotion. Extracting emotion from the intertwining elements of a dispute can be like removing a hairball from a cat; sometimes you just have to wait and let it happen. Then again, it can be a good idea to let the other party vent—although you'll need a thick skin and some self-control. Let the kettle blow off some steam and discuss the situation later.

Apologizing is unmatched as a way of calming people down, and its effect is often immediate. If you’ve done nothing wrong, speaking calmly and honestly about your actions can have a similar effect. A third approach is to reformulate the other person’s arguments in a convincing way, acknowledging their accuracy and value. Once this is done, calmly express your point of view, ceding some ground while gently claiming other ground. Any of these tactics can help set the stage for a rational analysis of the conflict (step two).

Your success at removing emotion will depend on your ability to keep a cool head. Learn to recognize the feeling that precedes an explosion of anger and frustration. Learn to short-circuit your natural response. Develop calming techniques. Ask for some time out or go in another room and punch something. Remind yourself not to take it personally or take it out on your opponent. Leave your emotions at the door.

The rational element (Second step)

Once the emotions have been defused (at least partly), it is time to assess the problem and figure out what's behind the conflict. There may be just one issue on the table, but usually other issues lurk beneath the surface. Only by understanding these can you find a direction to manage the issue, and that—arriving at a tentative strategy—is the ultimate aim of step two.

Rational analysis is needed to trace the conflict back to its origin. Things to take into consideration include the importance of the issue both to you and to the other person, the relationship with the other person, and the power balance. You’ll be done with step two when you understand all of the aspects of the conflict, seen from both viewpoints, and when you have some tentative decisions made about how to approach the problem. Now you need to bring another skill to the table—your intuition.

The intuitive element (Third step)

For a lot of people, this is the most difficult step because instead of concrete recommendations (“Do this, and this will follow”), it requires a more subtle use of their creative abilities and instincts. Those same factors also make this step the hardest to describe. After removing the emotions from a conflict, applying your best rational thought to determining the roots of the problem, and coming up with tentative solutions, it's time to decide on a course of action.

Scott suggests using classical brainstorming and creative visualization. Scientists are accomplished brainstormers, and the technique's use here is no different from its use in research. One technique described in Disagreements, Disputes, and All-Out War is to tap into your “inner expert” by bringing to mind a parent, mentor, or teacher from your past and asking them for advice. Listen to what they—or, rather, their manifestation in your mind--have to say.

Look to your inner voice, your gut feelings, or a sense of just knowing. Apply your empathy and human feeling to arrive at a solution that will play out well in practice.

Solving conflicts in the real world

Most of the time, being right doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think it does. It’s rare in science for two distinct answers both to be true. But in a social context, progress can be made despite a suboptimal consensus. The key is to view a conflict as if from the outside—as a problem to be solved rather than as a threat to your pride or as an insult to your competence—but in a way that doesn't make the other party feel as though they're being “managed” or otherwise disrespected. Play it straight and set aside any idea that you can outmaneuver and manipulate the person with whom you are conflicted in order to “win.”

There isn’t a job category anywhere, in academia or industry, where this soft skill isn't useful in moving you up the ladder.

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