Conflict Coaching: An Essential Tool for Every Coach’s Tool Kit
Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Dr Justine Huxley (United Kingdom).
None of us enjoy conflict. It’s uncomfortable. Most of us attempt to resolve it as fast as possible or run away at top speed. Sadly, this means we miss out on a wealth of potential for development, learning, intimacy and spiritual growth.
Approached in the right way, conflict is a treasure trove of opportunities for learning about ourselves, about life and about other people. It is a particular opportunity within our close relationships. Through working consciously with conflict we can increase our self-awareness, learn to walk in other people’s shoes and understand what makes them tick, grow in maturity and experience deepening intimacy with the people around us.
So how can we begin to tap into this potential? How can we learn to survive the tension and stress of disagreement and division?
This is where coaching can lend a truly magical ingredient.
Conflict can be very distressing. When we feel threatened, we can react in many unhelpful ways. We can lose our tempers and hurt the people we care about. We can withdraw and damage our relationships in other ways. Or we can contract inwardly and feel disempowered and stuck in ourselves.
The first thing a coach can provide is a simple accompaniment through a difficult situation. Listening, support, space to think things through — all these simple things can make a big difference to how intelligently we can work through the challenges. But coaches can also do a lot more. And as a conflict is an unavoidable part of life — whether in the workplace, family, or community — it makes sense to have some strong and versatile tools in our toolkit.
At St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation & Peace, we have developed a model which is structured yet flexible, and involves both traditional coaching and also building capacity and new skills in our clients. Our model draws on the work of Jones and Brinkert’s ‘comprehensive conflict coaching’ which has 5 stages.We have adapted this for our environment and expanded to include more skills and techniques (such as role playing courageous conversations, and understanding our conflict resilience profile) but also to include an emphasis on the opportunity presented by conflict.
So here’s an overview of the stages, which will give you a sense of some of your options as a coach.
- In the first stage, we simply listen to the conflict story, without judgment, avoiding taking sides inwardly or making inner decisions about who might be right or wrong. We try to listen with the ears of non-duality — recognizing the many perspectives present and avoiding being drawn into the drama by our client. We witness the situation, with empathy, but with an attitude of what the Buddhists call ‘beginners mind’ — an openness that is about not knowing the answers, not rescuing, not wanting even to help — just a willingness to be present. This quality of listening is subtle, not always easy to achieve, but very important, and can enable deep change in and of itself.
- Then we invite our client to expand the story, including elements of the story they may have been shy to talk about (perhaps mistakes or destructive acts on their own part), describing the effect it has had on them, and who else is involved in the wider picture. An important element of this stage (called ‘expanding the story’) is to invite the client to think about the perspective of the other party, or of bystanders. How would the other party describe what has happened? What might be going on for them?
- We then begin to dig deeper into the underlying dynamics of the disagreement, using four different lenses. These are identity, power, emotion, and opportunity. Threats to our identity — our values and our sense of self — are often what cause the heat in a conflict. These need to be unpacked and examined. We can also hazard a guess at what aspects of the identity of the other party might be threatened, and this can help to build empathy and understanding. Knowing where our own sense of self is involved and that of the other person, can bring much understanding and reward. Looked at from the perspective of spiritual growth or personal development, sometimes a conflict can also be life’s way of inviting us to shed an outdated attachment or free ourselves from an aspect of our parental or cultural conditioning. Or it could be a means to get in touch with what is most important to us and to value it and stand up for it. As a coach, it is not your job to make that judgment, but simply to help the client dig into the rich seam of identities that will be underlying the surface issues.
The lenses of power and emotion can also reveal a deep wealth of information about what is really going on within the unfolding outer situation. Consciously choosing to focus on opportunities for learning and evolution can also change the way we see a conflict completely. We may suddenly see that what appears to be an unwanted and painful problem, can actually be a unique gift, which used in the right way, can help us step into a new landscape or new more authentic way of being. This gentle invitation to our client to seek the opportunity within the difficulty can change a relationship full of arguments, into a journey of mutual discovery and even joy.
- Having delved deep into the underlying dynamics, we are then ready to support our clients to think about what he or she would like to see happen. What is the ideal outcome to this situation? And what will it take to get us there?
- Having given the client space to define that, we can then change gear, and see what tools and skills might be needed to give our client the best chance of getting that ideal outcome. Here we become more like trainers than traditional coaches. We can offer a conflict resilience profiling tool and look at a map of our strengths and weakness in dealing with conflict. We can explore habitual styles of response in a conflict and look at how to step out of a comfort zone and try new kinds of responses. We can present ideas about good communication skills, or teach the subtle art of negotiation and offer time to practice these new skills. We can help our clients to prepare for raising a difficult issue and role play different scenarios. We can share anger management methods and techniques for processing strong emotion. This can take an exploratory self-development route, or a highly practical means to achieve the desired result, depending on your client’s needs and style of approach.
So, having defined the desired outcome, devised a strategy and skilled up our client to put it into action, we are there at the end of a phone and in subsequent meetings, to give support through the stages of transformation, and to reflect on what worked and why, and to digest the learning and change that emerges.
Within the context of a workplace conflict, this can quite simply resolve the situation well and enable everyone to move on in a more creative way.In the context of a marriage or love relationship, the effects can go much further. When we live in close proximity with another person, sharing our lives with them, however good a match we have made and however happy we are, disagreement will be unavoidable. If we have the commitment to approach conflict form with an understanding of its potential, and we have the skills and the support to approach it consciously, there is no end to the depth of intimacy and understanding we can achieve.
As a coach, offering this framework to clients with relationship issues can generate a real shift. It can even open up new worlds and change conflict from unwanted stress into a rich journey of shared growth. It is also very rewarding as a coach.
So next time you or one of your clients experience conflict, why not welcome it gracefully and open your mind to its gifts?
Dr. Justine Huxley is the Director of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, in London. St Ethelburga’s approaches conflict as an opportunity and also recognizes the relationship between the way conflict is manifested in our own individual lives, relationships, and workplaces — and the bigger collective stories of crisis, change, and transition that is present globally at this time. Justine has a Ph.D. in psychology and a diploma in counseling and leads conflict coaching training courses on a regular basis. firstname.lastname@example.org
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