A few years ago I was training a diverse group of 12 people from different organisations on improving conflict management strategies. We got to the stage of the course when we ask the group to look at themselves and consider what they bring to a conflict and what they find particularly difficult. What first emerged was that almost everyone rarely discussed how they ‘performed’ in a conflict. They sometimes grumbled with a colleague or to HR but talking through conflict in a detached way was uncommon. This illustrates how important it is for all staff to know that they can debrief about conflict and their behaviour in a non-blaming way. HR needs to step up to that role.
In pairs first, then as a whole group, people on the course honestly talked about how they often reacted to conflict in a familiar, quite negative way. They were asked not to name names and maintain confidentiality. One person mentioned that they quickly got drawn into unproductive conversations, particularly when confronted with behaviour which they found provocative, difficult to understand or tolerate. This person recognised that would suddenly begin to speak very fast, get emotionally engaged very quickly, and get ‘brain fuzzing’ making it difficult to think straight. They were doing the same things over and over again knowing that it was not going to end up well, almost as though they were on auto pilot.
Auto pilot is immensely helpful in many areas of our life where we need to complete familiar activities at home, work and generally in life. Auto pilot also helps once you have established norms and ways of working in teams with others on projects. You learn to accurately do a lot of tasks without thinking. Auto pilot is essentially the human skill of learning by repetition and doing familiar, recognisable tasks without thinking too much – like driving if you have a car, or going upstairs to your bedroom to sleep, or putting the milk in before the hot water in your tea if that is how you take it.
In human relationships and conflict particularly, auto pilot can be risky if it causes us to get familiarly negative outcomes. The main thing we can control in any conflict is ourselves, and what we do will, of course significantly influence others. If we are directly involved then we need to listen, speak about our feelings honestly but constructively and be prepared to take on difficult feedback from the other person (within reason). If we are in a mediator or third party role then we have the added responsibility of impartiality and seeking a win/win resolution.
Everything I have ever read about auto pilot suggests that we need to recognise and manage the physiological signs that we are about to launch into auto pilot in an unhelpful way. Though I am no expert in the science I know that a quick scan of the body and a steady regulation of breathing can help detach us from whatever it is that drives our looming response. It can also be really useful to change modes, for example from speaking to listening. Learning repeatable, conflict-positive, effective behaviours is, of course, the most effective remedy to unhelpful conflict auto pilot.
For HR, conflict is difficult as they have to maintain both a formal (grievance investigation) and informal (mediation style) approach and be a resource to their staff. It is possible to maintain both roles, particularly if the right training has been received. Do not, however, use the same person applying both approaches on the same situation or ‘case’. One typical auto pilot response for a HR person is to take an investigation style response by evaluating blame and seeking evidence from an early stage. Mediators learn to step out of that role and the behaviours it instills in us and listen, suspend judgement and build understanding with and between the parties and then seek a resolution.
Contact us for more on how to ‘Nip Conflict in the Bud’ through effective training. It will help you become more consciously aware and in control in a conflict, and reduce the harmful effect of negative auto pilot.
John Crawley is the General Manager at People Resolutions. He is a mediation expert whose aim is to prevent workplace conflict effectively and resolve it when it arises.
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