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‘Horses for courses’: Conflict management strategies in social work

Dr Sharif Haider talks to COMPASS about the different approaches available to social workers when dealing with conflict.


‘Horses for courses’: Conflict management strategies in social work

Whether we like it or not; whether we want it or not, conflict is inevitable in social work regardless of whether we work with children or adults.

Although conflict is a neutral term we mostly associate it with negative consequences that make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable to confront it. Maybe you are encountering a conflict now or you need to address a conflict later, or you have just resolved a conflict or had addressed it previously — whatever your circumstances it is a guarantee that you cannot hide from it.

In social work you will experience conflict at various levels, for example, with your managers, fellow colleagues, service users, family members, carers, etc. This article endeavours to provide evidence-based tools and techniques that will enable you to successfully manage your conflict. So, let’s clarify the term “conflict”: it is fluid and dynamic, based on either real or perceived difference, when two or more parties have incompatible goals.
Incompatible goals could mean negative consequences, they could also mean positive. For example, suppose we lived in an ideal world where there is no conflict and we get on with each other. How would life be like in such a world? First of all, there would be no disagreement so we would keep the status quo and become stagnant. That means we would not change or strive to explore alternative ways of looking at our world, so, we would not progress. Do we want that kind of world? Probably not.

Hence, we need to foster and harness the good aspects of conflict such as debate, which enables us to challenge each other’s ideas about issues. Debate of this type is positive in that it clarifies our roles, responsibilities and positions, resulting in improved efficiency and effectiveness.
So, the problem is how do we then manage the conflict in such a way as to achieve the positive aspects but eliminate the negative features i.e. destructive consequences. Research indicates that we need to strike the balance between too little, too much or no conflict at all. What position you strike depends on both your personal judgement and the context of the situation.
In order to get the balance right, my research shows the way we confront conflict determines our success in managing it.

Generally, in social work, there are two ways you can confront conflict: rationally or irrationally. When you confront conflict rationally, you start to engage with the process of managing it and then just need to consider which strategies you will deploy. But if your approach is irrational, you allow your emotions to rule, meaning that you respond to conflict in one of three ways, according to the psychologists: fight, flight, or freeze.

If you want to deal with the conflict positively and successfully you need to avoid an emotional response or at least set aside some of your emotions. Try to follow the CALM principle, that is be cautious and curious, attentive and explore alternative solutions, listen actively and manage any emotional outbursts.
A range of authors have proposed various conflict management strategies. Five conflict management strategies could however capture most of the strategies proposed so far:
Competing: If you subscribe to this strategy you are heading to win; that means you focus solely on your issues. There are some occasions you may need this strategy but research shows that few health and social care professionals use it.
Compromising: You are not losers or winners if you use this strategy. Research on interprofessional mental health discharge teams has shown that both health and social care professionals use this technique, especially when they need to discharge a patient promptly or deal with a crisis situation.
Collaborating: Although most social workers intend to use collaborative conflict management strategy, research shows that only use it on a few occasions. It is probably because they do not have the time required to apply this strategy. Also, it requires willingness from other parties that are not always available.
Accommodating: With this strategy, you sacrifice your goals and allow others to achieve their goals. In a crude way, it is a lose-win situation. This does not mean it is a bad strategy; far from it. Some social workers use this strategy to gain future results. Research shows that this strategy supports social workers to keep their relationships with other parties, specifically when they require it to achieve bigger goals and outcomes.
Avoiding: This strategy enables you to stay away from the conflict or, in some instances, it allows other people or policies or legislation to take over and manage the conflict on your behalf. For example, current research on a hospital discharge team shows that some health professionals deliberately avoided conflict with social workers and left it to the multidisciplinary discharge policies and hierarchical structure to manage the conflict on their behalf. This way they could save face with their fellow colleagues and their relationships would not become soured. Some social workers also follow the same route to manage their conflict. Furthermore, some social workers deliberately use the avoidance strategy as they think issues will go away at some point, or they planned something that will make the conflict a lesser priority in the future. So, they don’t deal with conflict head-on.
As you can see whatever conflict management strategies you apply the outcome will depend on the circumstances and ultimately what you are trying to achieve; there is no single best strategy available for all types of conflict that you may encounter; rather it is more about ‘horses for courses’.
Management of conflict is not always about winning the game or argument by hook or by crook, or trying to get your way or shaming other people into how wrong they are. My research shows that the best conflict management is when you rise above egotistic thinking, looking at the bigger picture and encourage those around you to take on a rational, logical, curious approach. In other words, bringing them with you so that you are both on the same page, even if you do not like the page, and then move forward. In order to do so, you need to propose pros and cons of various options or issues and explore the trade-offs and identify the solutions.
In some cases, you may need to go for the common ground and stop becoming defensive. A defensive strategy brings some side effects such as failure to listen, frustration, and worse of all, anger. If you feel that this is what is happening, or someone is doing, then politely request a break from the conversation and come back later with your rational hat on. Such an approach is absolutely acceptable, as research shows the effectiveness of confronting conflict relies on rational, logical and critical thinking and focusing on facts, not perceptions.

There may be occasions when the type of conflict you face may be so difficult that it is extremely hard to follow any of the advice given. Then the single most important piece of advice to take with you is to keep actively listening. When people feel you are listening you are half way to resolving the conflict, as research has shown, when people feel valued, respected and listened to they are willing to negotiate.

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