Conflict Through Behavior Modification
Lloyd F. George
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.
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.
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.
Nature of Conflict
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).
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.
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.
a professional to do? Cultivate the PNS behaviorally. One
formula follows five key questions regarding the issue and
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?
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.
Important Is the Issue Underlying the Conflict?
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?
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?
are examples of questions to ask oneself as a segué
to consider the next question.
Important Are the Relationships Involved?
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?
the Parties Aware of the Conflict?
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.
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.
Much Do the Parties Trust One Another?
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.
Actions Driven by Emotion, or by Logic?
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.
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.