Resolving Conflict Through Behavior Modification

By Lloyd F. George

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OCTOBER 2005 - Conflict is part of life. In business, conflict pervades strategic direction, budgeting, operational streamlining, recruitment, and corporate governance. Any good business advisor must understand conflicts and be able to resolve them.

Conflicts can be found in accounting and auditing issues, tax preparation, financial planning, and valuation. Conflict resides at the core of our legal system and gives purpose and meaning to the alternative dispute resolution specialty.

Conflict can bring out the best in people, or it can fracture relationships. The same individuals that have success in one situation may fail in another. Why are some outcomes constructive while others are destructive? The answer lies in how individuals understand and address conflict itself.

The Nature of Conflict

Individuals can close a conflict gap by various means, such as acquiescence, compromise, consensus, persuasion, or fiat. How does one understand the nature of conflict? How does it arise? Why is it so pervasive? The answer lies in the human make-up, specifically, in the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

According to Robin Sands: “The ANS is responsible for maintaining the equilibrium of our internal environment. … It is responsible for anything and everything that we experience automatically” (Stress News, October 2002). The ANS comprises two systems, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS stimulates while the PNS sedates. In other words, the SNS activates defense mechanisms to deal with stressful situations, while the PNS gives comfort and relaxation. One of the processes invoked by the SNS is the constriction of blood vessels and the acceleration of thinking. Accelerated thinking can be constructive; however, it can lead one to push the wrong buttons in a hurry. The risk of error is magnified by the rerouting of blood from the rational segment of the brain. Thus, facing a significant relationship or a critically important issue under SNS control can result in a quicker decision, but one perhaps less likely to be the right one.

Consider how individuals, often without knowing it, exercise and cultivate their SNSs. Look at conditioning for competitiveness. Individuals continuously “raise the bar,” “up the ante,” and stretch to perform at higher levels with constant resources. The SNS is worked on continually and purposefully, while the PNS can be taken for granted.

The Formula

What’s a professional to do? Cultivate the PNS behaviorally. One formula follows five key questions regarding the issue and its outcome:

  • How important is the issue underlying the conflict?
  • How important are the relationships involved?
  • Are the parties aware of the conflict?
  • How much do the parties trust one another?
  • Are actions driven by emotion, or by logic?

The first two questions affect the decision to engage in resolution behavior or not. Not engaging in resolution behavior is acquiescing or avoiding. Once the decision is made to engage in resolution behavior, it is important to find a way to call the PNS into action to enable the brain to function rationally. It is critical that both the issue and the relationship are sufficiently important. One without the other is risky.

How Important Is the Issue Underlying the Conflict?

Importance is relative. One must ask “relative to what expectations or understandings?” What would be the consequence of acquiescence or avoidance? How serious might the consequences be? Would the outcome be superior without even acknowledging that a challenge exists?

For example, consider a consultant who has been waiting for a project that required him to value a manufacturer. The case has finally entered the practice, but it is assigned it to a peer. How important is it to receive this assignment? How seriously might one be disadvantaged by not receiving it—if at all? How does the assignment compare with other priorities (e.g., a family vacation or business networking)? How is the manufacturing client advantaged or disadvantaged by one’s involvement?

These are examples of questions to ask oneself as a segué to consider the next question.

How Important Are the Relationships Involved?

Again, importance is relative. Consider, in the above example, the status of the consulting director for the valuation practice. What is the relevance of the consulting director’s opinion on one’s performance evaluation? What is the likelihood that the competing consultants might find themselves on the same project team in a different situation? What might be the effect on the relationship with the other person if one offered to assist with the engagement to gain valuable experience? How does this relationship compare with the consultant’s emerging or desired relationship with someone else? How is the client advantaged or disadvantaged by an individual’s potential involvement?

Are the Parties Aware of the Conflict?

When conflict is upon us, the SNS may camouflage the condition. The classic symptoms are sweaty palms, a poker face, a flushed visage, or a steely glance. Often the SNS of the conflict originator is in charge, although the other party might not even realize its activity. One party may be uniquely qualified to solve the parties’ problem simply because her behavior has been cultivating and exercising her PNS.

How can this be done? First, an individual should develop techniques for getting off the defensive. Acquiring effective techniques takes practice. They could involve simple tasks such as doodling in the margin of a note pad or listening intently, hanging on every word. More sophisticated techniques can develop with practice. Examples include the use of active listening via restatement, reflection, or reframing key points made. Other examples involve asking open-ended questions that probe the issue in nonthreatening ways, taking the focus off the source of conflict, and buying time while the other parties find their respective PNS and get themselves off the defensive.

How Much Do the Parties Trust One Another?

The willingness of conflicting parties to engage in resolution behavior is a function of trust. The more trust that exists between the parties, the more likely they will engage and get off the defensive. In forensic accounting practices, the absence of trust between or among parties in conflict often leads to litigation or alternative dispute resolution through a neutral third party. In the workplace, trust must be earned over time and can be destroyed in an instant. The key point is that if trust is insufficient during a conflict, the resolution may be in jeopardy.

Are Actions Driven by Emotion, or by Logic?

Intellectually, the PNS may enable behavior in business situations with more logic than emotion. This does not suggest that acting without passion is always desirable or even preferable. When faced with conflict, however, logic can be expected to enhance the probability of effective resolution. Part of cultivating and exercising one’s PNS occurs by critiquing one’s behavior during a conflict after the fact. Awareness of the phenomenon allows one to do that deliberately, contrary to SNS conditioning. Development of PNS can increase one’s consciousness of it, even to the extent of strategizing specific conflict resolution behaviors in advance.

Lloyd F. George, CPA, CLU, ChFC, is a forensic accountant specializing in business valuation, damage assessment, and litigation services. He also is an adjunct consultant with the Princeton, N.J., office of the global career management firm Lee Hecht Harrison.




















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