November 3, 2016
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An article by Anke Sommer

Things get dangerous if action is motivated by anger and hurt

An unsettling vein swells on the businessman’s forehead as a glut of angry expletives – aimed at his colleague – pour from his mouth.

The colleague niftily takes to his heels, which only serves to irritate his boss even more. The colleague says that his boss is a hypocrite; that he plays the good guy when I’m there but at all other times his anger is driving him to despair…

This scenario is merely one of the hundreds of similar situations I witness every day in my work. The people in the combatants’ roles are different each time: sometimes it’s women who lose it, sometimes it’s men; sometimes it’s groups of managers who have the problem; sometimes it’s two people involved, sometimes three; sometimes it’s board members or political organisations; sometimes it’s shareholders or even doctors in a wide range of events. The cause of the outbreak of anger is always the same, however: hurt, pent up feelings resulting in a sense of powerlessness and a volcanic eruption, and above all an underlying sense of injustice.

A conflict: loss of restraint

At this escalated stage of the conflict, facts and day-to-day business went out the window long ago, to be replaced by justice versus injustice, power versus powerlessness, pent up hurt that has never been resolved, and the allergy that has developed towards the opponent in the conflict.

Going in search of the truth at this point, to discover how things really are, is a risky business – risky for those seeking help and risky for me as consultant. Those seeking help would lose no end of time as the beleaguered business increasingly ‘goes to the dogs’. After all, it’s often the case that the conflict participants only reach out to me once the dispute has driven them into financial straits, while some are even facing insolvency by this point.

The risk for me as a conflict manager and consultant is in losing myself in the search for the truth and satisfying no one in the process.

But it is precisely at this stage of the conflict that the compulsion towards ‘justice’ is very strong. Each one of the participants is attempting to demonstrate the other’s failing(s) and the truth as he or she sees it. It is exactly this striving for justice that blinds a person to all rationality, makes his or her blood boil, and triggers outbreaks of rage.

Rage stems a company’s lifeblood

If I try to visualise the de-escalation of a conflict, I think of a snake pit full of exotic poisonous snakes in all sizes and surrounded by an expansive area dotted with innumerable but well camouflaged pitfalls as well as extended belts of land marked with ‘Hazardous Substances’ warning signs. All participants – the employees, including myself – are at the centre of this mental picture.

This kind of scenario poses no problem for me as a conflict consultant, as I know how to handle toxicity and can see the next pitfall coming from a long way away. Above all, I know how to detox and pacify such conflict processes. 

But for my clients these stages of conflict de-escalation are very dangerous, as they’re literally up to their eyeballs in poison. They only see the other’s shamelessness. They’re very hurt, blow precious time on explanatory and belligerent e-mails as long as your arm and are exceedingly busy, not with saving the business but instead with the fight for justice. Employees are complaining. They’re equally concerned with avoiding the next pitfall and fear for their jobs every time the heat of the conflict moves up a notch. Everyone’s longing for an end to the dispute, just that unfortunately the money required to achieve that is rarely available.

The more a conflict continues, the more a business is at risk of collapse. This is because a dispute is not only reflected in the participants but also in the order book, as it starts emptying the longer a conflict goes on. The parties are no longer able to see that this is solely the result of an on-going conflict and that resolving the conflict will bring the peace and recovery sought. From the outside, it almost looks as if the only way of escaping the horror would be to leave the company en masse, to separate the partners, or to make at least one of the parties in the dispute disappear.

None of these options will work. As the conflict escalates over time, the visibly uncontrollable eruptions of a few of the people involved are indicative of the approaching infarct. They’re simply the result of a conflict that is now seeing the light of day. The consultant only need do one thing: avoid the stemming of lifeblood by immediately stopping the factors leading to it.

Insight is the first step towards recovery

Separation is always possible, just please don’t do it in the middle of a heated dispute.

Certainly the most difficult aspect of this phase of the conflict is letting go of injustice/justice, particularly for the person who thinks they’re on the losing end of things. The damage that has been caused is just too great. And now the nightmare is suddenly going to end and the dispute be replaced by business priorities just because the conflict consultant shows up?

I note time and again how great the compulsion is to escalate the conflict. Alongside the longing for everything to be over and for peace to return at last, feelings are calling for retaliation and revenge. The feeling is that all the harmful actions should be atoned for.

My experience as a consultant provides clear evidence of the fact that every contribution to the conflict has an opposite effect to the one the beleaguered institution needs. If we’re focusing on the conflict then we’re wasting time that could be used to resolve it. We can only clear up a heated dispute from a position outside of it. This insight is needed so that all parties remain at the mediation table and re-establish the contact that has been lost with everyday business. Without this insight, a big call goes out for a leading lawyer who can finally establish law and order and really show the other person once and for all… Practical experience shows that if the parties in a conflict yield to the need for the dispute to be resolved then it, and the allergy, fades into the background. Collaborative working is suddenly possible again. So my advice: you’re free to separate, just don’t do it in the middle of a heated dispute.

The company is the loser – make it a winner! WE HELP

Conflicts produce a clear loser: the company in which all the drama takes place.

Institut Sommer strengthens the institution where you earn your daily bread.

• secure all employees’ livelihoods and help establish a level of communication where resolution is once again possible
• prevent blind destruction and menacing arbitrariness, and instead return honour to where it’s needed so that a company on a losing path can regain health
• demand no miracles but welcome everything that happens en route to successful
business operations
• expect no initial warmth between previously warring partners but consider good relations to be 100% possible once the thorny conflict has been resolved
Our thinking is based on experience.
We wish you a healthy and happy working climate.

Our thinking is based on experience.
We wish you a healthy and happy working climate.

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