Conflict Resolution

There are times when living and working as crew aren’t exactly all happy days.  Onboard conflicts take many forms, but in most organisations, conflicts arise for one of two reasons: people don’t know what to do, or they don’t understand why to do it.  In either case, conflicts arise because things don’t get done in a way that someone thinks they should be done.

The key to conflict resolution can be found in the last part of the previous sentence – in the way someone thinks they should be done.  The key is the word ‘thinks.’

On the surface, one would imagine that resolving conflicts should be a pretty straightforward activity.  Experienced crew, are in most cases, pretty smart people.  When conflicts arise, one would also assume that smart people would have the capacity to resolve them.  But one of the reasons that conflicts are not resolved is that quite often, the conflicts are between smart people who have pre-conceived mental models about what is right and what is wrong.  In most cases, what we believe to be ‘right’ matches up with what we believe.  As humans, we take actions largely based on our belief patterns and this is where things can begin to run amuck.

When conflicts begin to arise, we tend to erect defence mechanisms that we think help us to explain our actions and the decisions we have made.  Our intuition tells us that our actions and decisions are ‘right’ and instead of exploring what other actions and decisions might be equally ‘as right,’ our defence mechanisms cause us to dig into our position and aggravate the potential conflict situation.  When you or someone else is aware that this dynamic is beginning to take hold, there are two ways to mitigate it.

Perhaps the most helpful way to avoid the potential for conflicts – or to mitigate their effects – is to surface the underlying mental models on the parts of opposing viewpoints.  The way to do this is the same, whether working to avoid conflicts or when conflicts have already arisen.

The method requires only that, when conflicting views are surfaced, you listen carefully to what is being said, and then instead of stating your position – a sign of defensive posturing – you say, “this is what I am hearing you say,” followed by you ‘playing back’ what you have heard.  You then say, “Am I hearing you correctly?”  By employing this method – testing what you have heard instead of falling into defensive mode – you are creating an environment in which you can avoid any mis-interpretations or misunderstandings about the other person’s view.  There is logic behind this approach.

  • Conflicts usually arise due to either misunderstandings or mis-interpretation of viewpoints.
  • To avoid misunderstandings and mis-interpretations of viewpoints, it is important to surface existing mental models.
  • By enabling opposing views to become clear, existing mental models can be surfaced.
  • When mental models become clear, it is easier to see why someone has taken the position they have.
  • Once the basis for personal positions is clear, it is easier to avoid conflicts.

Certainly, there are situations when, even after existing mental models and the reasons behind positions are clear, there is still the potential for disagreements.  When this occurs, one recourse is to have the two opposing parties to decide what parts of their respective positions are ‘negotiable.’  This usually requires the assistance of a facilitator whose principle role is to help ensure that each party truly does understand the opposing view and what is behind it, but to also help negotiate a ‘win-win’ outcome.

By focusing facilitation efforts on enabling both parties involved in a conflict to stake claim to a ‘win’ – even if it is just a partial win – it is possible to find a common ground.  The challenge is to find someone who can facilitate without his or her own mental models about who or what is right can skew the process.  Again, the first step is to create an environment in which misunderstandings or mis-interpretations cloud any conversation.  This means that the facilitator needs to begin any meeting by surfacing existing mental models of the participants that drive their positions.

Because living and working onboard can be complicated, conflicts in what to do or how to do it are almost inevitable.  The ability to resolve conflicts before they result in adversarial relationships is critical in the world of being crew.

By Dr James B Rieley

+34 620 224 341




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