Dr. Mary was frustrated because she was not able to focus on her main tasks. When I asked what was diverting her attention, she complained that, as she was a good problem solver, her staff constantly came to her to resolve conflicts and fix problems. This caused a major drain on Mary’s time and energy.

What Is Conflict? Why Is Conflict So Challenging?

Underlying most definitions of conflict is the notion of differences. Any situation in which people have incompatible interests, different goals, principles or even feelings, can result in conflict.

Dealing effectively with conflict is not easy. How to handle conflict ranks as the highest area of concern for most physicians seeking personal development. Many things come to you because there is an important decision to be made, often with conflicting agendas.

Poorly managed conflict creates enormous costs in wasted time, high turnover, and failure to leverage benefits that result in constructive use of differences. Yet, avoiding painful or unpleasant experiences is a basic quality of human nature. Dealing with conflict is as difficult as public speaking or telling your teenager no!

Conflict is inevitable. Like the power of fire, conflict can be used constructively or destructively. Despite the avoidance response, dealing with conflict, if harnessed effectively, can create sparks for new ideas and create solutions to challenging issues.

Are You Experiencing These Symptoms?

These commonly experienced symptoms give you a clue that more attention to conflict is required:

  • Higher frequency of medical errors
  • Lack of implementation of Initiatives
  • Leaders who yell at team members
  • Staff members who avoid each other
  • Difficulty retaining quality physicians

Understand Your Role In Conflict

Conflict involves at least two parties, and you are one of them. Conflict is all about emotions. Enhancing your capacity to manage your emotions effectively is the first step toward fostering a constructive conflict response. Many of us experience a strong emotional reaction to conflict that can trigger a “fight or flight“ response. A fight response is to argue vehemently for our side. A flight response is escaping from or avoiding the situation. Either response can cause conflict to move toward irreconcilable differences.

With either response, the first step is to Cool Down, to be able to manage emotions. Then you rationally can take the time to consider what is happening and your response.

Building Personal Conflict Skills Is Not Enough

How well does your organization deal with conflict? Is a valued physician, perhaps you, about to walk out the door?

Historically, we focus on the individual. Maybe we might even have labeled a physician as disruptive. However, dealing with conflict effectively is an organizational issue. Individuals may leave a team or organization because of how conflict is managed.

The use of constructive conflict responses and promoting conflict management systems is part of an organization’s overall risk management strategy. Although no one system will work for each organization, guiding principles include:

  • Aligning the organization’s vision/mission to the strategy
  • Providing options for preventing & identifying conflicts
  • Providing multiple options for addressing & resolving conflict

Behaviors to Manage Conflict Effectively

At both personal and organizational levels, the following behaviors will move you toward effective conflict management:

  • Reach out & communicate often
  • Listen to others
  • Show empathy
  • Be respectful of others’ perspectives
  • Constructive expression of emotions
  • Model professional behavior
  • Be positive & open to change
  • Ask for help to resolve conflict
  • Continual learning & practice of conflict management skills
  • Focus on the solution

Just do it!  At the personal, team or organizational level- which behavior will you focus on to give you the most leverage?

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