Stewards Training Working Strategically Through Conflict

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Stewards Training

Working Strategically Through Conflict

Time: 3 hours

Working Strategically Through Conflict

(with thanks to Training for Change for inspiration and methodologies)
Learning Objectives

  • To recognize when conflict emerges

  • To develop an understanding of how to strategically deal with conflict as a Steward

  • To practice dealing with conflict as a Steward.

Room set-up – chairs in a circle with space for participants to form two long lines.
Time: 3 hours
Tools: paper, pens or pencils, flipchart paper, non-scented felt markers, large sticky pads
Handouts: Working Through Conflict, Conflict Styles, Four Ways of Handling Confrontation

Introductions & Discussion – Defining Conflict (30 minutes)
Greet everyone sitting in circle. Tell them that we are going to take the time for introductions. Distribute a piece of paper or large sticky pad and a non-scented felt marker to each participant.
Invite participants to take a minute to think about the following question and to write a phrase, picture, symbol or work that would answer it:
What is conflict?
When everyone is ready, do a round and have each person present and post their sentence/picture in response to the question.
Review what is posted and use this to come to some common understanding of what conflict is.
(NOTE TO FACILITATORS: the online, free, Merriam Webster Dictionary, defines conflict as follows);
Definition of CONFLICT:

fight, battle, war conflict>

2a. competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)
mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands
3. the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction)
Debrief by asking questions like:

  • How do you know when you are in a conflict situation?’

  • What are some of the signs that indicate when you are in conflict?

  • Can you give examples of when you thought you were in conflict but really weren’t? What was really going on?

  • What about cultural differences? How should they be considered when conflict emerges? (this conversation should address some of the different ways we interact culturally … but be careful that the dialogue remains respectful and doesn’t reinforce stereotyping).

Review workshop objectives (post on flipchart).

Workplace Conflict – some things to consider (15 minutes)
Talk about the different types of workplace conflicts that a Steward may find themselves involved in;

  • member-employer

  • Steward -employer

  • member-member

  • member-Steward

  • Steward – Steward (or other elected union officer)

Say that conflict can be in the moment (a difficult discussion / a disagreement on principle, etc.) or can be the result of ongoing, unresolved, issues.

Ask – What are some reasons why conflict emerges? (i.e. fear, miscommunication, improper use of power, differences in ideology, clashes of culture, mistrust, personality differences, etc.)

Say that as a Steward, it is important to take into account issues of power as it relates to conflict; particularly because of the many ways that power can manifest itself in the workplace.
Draw out the discussion on power a little bit.

  • Talk about how power manifests itself; positions of power in the workplace or union, dominant group power, personal power, etc.

  • It is always important for us to recognize and acknowledge the power that we have. If we don’t, we may misuse it.

  • Often conflict emerges when one person or party is trying to use power OVER another.

  • One basic union principle, is the idea of shared, or collective power; the kind of power that creates solidarity.

Now ask – What are some benefits gained by working through conflict? (i.e. – engaging people in their union, negotiating positive outcomes, understanding people better, coming up with new ideas that benefit more people, building solidarity, etc.)

Strategies / Tips for Working Through Conflict (45 minutes)
Ask participants to get together in groups of 3 and face each other (either on the floor or in their chairs). Tell them that in a couple of minutes they will have 15 minutes to tell each other a story about a time when they were able to work effectively through conflict. Invite them to decide who will share their story first, second and third.
Visualization …

  • Now ask them to close their eyes and get comfortable. Ask them to let go of the tension in their body and to breathe deeply; focus them on taking slow deep breaths in and out.
  • Ask them to remember a time when they were able to work effectively through conflict. Say that if they are remembering more than one time, they should choose one for the exercise.

  • Ask them to bring the incident as vividly to mind as possible.

  • Ask the following questions, one by one, with a 15 – 20 second pause between each one; as a way of helping participants to visualize their situation. This is done while they still have their eyes closed.

  • What happened?

  • Who was there?

  • What kind of power relationships existed?

  • How did they manifest themselves?

  • How did you feel?

  • What did you do?

  • Specifically, what qualities and characteristics in you enabled you to be effective at working through the conflict?

  • What conditions allowed this to happen?

  • How did you approach the conflict?

  • What words did you use?

  • What was your intent?

  • What lessons did you draw from that experience for your own learning?

  • What did you learn from others in the situation?

Invite everyone to open their eyes and slowly bring themselves back into the room.

Tell them that they should begin their storytelling, in the order that they identified when they got into their small groups.
Tell them that you will let them know when 5 minutes is up and they should move to the next storyteller.
Provide each person with a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Tell them that they can use these to write down some lessons learned from the stories that are told – as they are listening.
Have them start their small group storytelling; announcing a change at 5 minute intervals.

When the 15 minutes for storytelling is finished, invite participants to share some of their lessons learned with each other in their small groups and to compile a collective list of tips and strategies for working effectively through conflict.

Once everyone is finished writing, invite one small group to write one of their tips/strategies on a large sticky pad with a non-scented felt marker and stick it on a flipchart paper that you have posted in a central location in the front of the room that is titled “Tips and Strategies for Working Through Conflict”. Have them read it aloud as they come to post it on the flipchart paper. (alternatively, the facilitator can write up responses on flipchart paper – whatever suits her/him best)
Move onto the next group until each group has had an opportunity to provide one example. Repeat the round until all examples have been exhausted. Encourage groups not to repeat what has already been posted.
When you have finished, review the tips and strategies for working through conflict with participants – noting themes/commonalities and clarifying where needed. Draw out more specifics where it will be helpful.
Distribute the Handout – Working Through Conflict. Review it identifying similarities with what participants posted and highlighting anything that may not have been mentioned. Allow time for participants to write in any tips or strategies that are not reflected in the handout.
Then reference the Handout – Conflict Styles and say that this is additional reading that may benefit participants as follow-up to the course.

Difficult Conversations (30 minutes)
NOTE TO FACILITATOR – this is a fairly fast-paced activity. You will have to balance a quick pace with ensuring that participants are connected to the key learning moments that this exercise offers.

Tell participants that we will take a few minutes to put into practice some of the tips and strategies we discussed earlier for working through conflict (refer to flipchart and handout – Working Through Conflict), by practicing two difficult conversations.

Invite participants to find a partner (if there is an odd number of participants, the facilitator should pair up with someone).
Explain that they will practice a difficult conversation with each other and that they should try to be as realistic as possible – without being disrespectful. Emphasize that their goal is to try and resolve their conflicting interests in the situations we set up for them (which are common situations that Stewards can find themselves in).
Set up the first practice as follows:
Have one person in each pair raise their hand. Tell them that they will take on the role of the Steward. The other person will take on the role of an anxious member.
Explain the situation as follows:

  • The member has been denied 2 day’s paid leave that s/he applied for to attend the funeral of a friend out of town. The leave that s/he applied for is approved at the discretion of the manager (as per the collective agreement). The member wants to file a grievance. The Steward is trying to explain that this leave is discretionary and therefore not grievable and that the member should look at putting in for some other kind of leave instead. The member is upset and wants to grieve any way – particularly since someone else in her/his section was granted paid leave under this article last year.

Tell participants that they have 3 minutes to carryout their difficult conversation.

Once the 3 minutes is up, debrief as follows:

  • Invite 2-3 participants (a mix of those who were the Steward and those who were members), to share how they felt during the conversation. Try to get them to focus on their feelings only at this point.
  • Then invite 2-3 participants (a mix of those who were the Steward and those who were members), to share some things that their partner did that helped them work through their difficult conversation. Capture these by adding them to your list of “tips and strategies” already posted or putting a check beside those already identified.

For the second practice, tell participants that they should switch roles.

Explain the situation as follows:

  • The Steward has been informed by staff in the member’s work unit that s/he has been working extra hours (overtime) at the request of the employer and is not getting paid for it. The Steward wants the member to file a grievance and refuse to work any more unpaid overtime. The member is not comfortable with filing a grievance and believes that doing this extra work will heighten her/his reputation as a good worker, making her/him more secure in their job.

Tell participants that they have 3 minutes to carryout their difficult conversation.

Once the 3 minutes is up, debrief as follows:

  • Invite 2-3 participants (a mix of those who were the Steward and those who were members), to share how they felt during the conversation. Try to get them to focus on their feelings only at this point.

  • Then invite 2-3 participants (a mix of those who were the Steward and those who were members), to share some things that their partner did that helped them work through their difficult conversation. Capture these by adding them to your list of “tips” already posted or putting a check beside those already identified.

Go back to the list of tips and strategies and note additions. Allow time for participants to add these to the handout Working Through Conflict (if applicable).

Then ask: Why do you think we focused on feelings when we debriefed your practice sessions for working through conflict? Why is it important to be in touch with feelings in a conflict situation? (i.e. - to be in tune with what might trigger us in a conflict situation and to help us to empathize with others so that we can be thoughtful about our responses and strategies)

Dealing with Confrontation (50 minutes)
Say that sometimes we experience conflict as a confrontation. Ask for one or two examples of how this might happen with a union Steward (an angry member, an employer yelling, etc.)
Reference the handout Four Ways of Dealing with Confrontation. Note that these are offered as 4 common ways of handling confrontation. These are not necessarily all inclusive, but they are helpful for us to take note of.
Review each section of the handout asking:
When as a Steward, might this be a strategic response to use when being confronted? Why would you choose his option?
For example:
Defensiveness: when a grievance has been filed and it is important to be firm in order to establish facts and obtain a good decision. There are times, when it is important to stand firm in order to reinforce important rights and/or principles.
Confronting back: when your role as a union representative is being challenged and you need to garner respect from members and/or the employer. To reinforce that you cannot be pushed around or compromised.
Acceptance: when you are wrong or when it doesn’t really matter if you are right – and you want to re-establish good will
Dialogue: when it is important for you to resolve the conflict and you need to understand the other person’s perspective and find creative solutions.
Say that we are going to practice working through a difficult confrontation.

Ask participants to get together in the same pairs they were in for the Difficult Conversations practice we just did. This is important because it’s best that they practice confrontation with someone they have already established rapport with.

Ask them to form two lines with the partners from the previous exercise facing each other (it’s best if they are standing but you should let people know this exercise may take a few minutes so invite those who wish, to get a chair to sit on).
Tell participants in one line they are the Steward and those in the opposite line are members or managers (their choice).
Ask the members/managers to think about a situation that they experienced, or one that they think could realistically happen, where they would confront a union Steward. Give them just a minute to think of a scenario.
Tell the members/managers that they are going to approach their partner, the Steward, and practice the situation. They should tell their partner if they are a member or a manager in this scenario before starting.
Say that the Steward, will be the person trying to work through the confrontation. Remind them that they can choose one or more of the 4 strategies for dealing with confrontation and that they can bring into play any of the applicable tips and strategies about working through conflict that we discussed earlier.
Caution participants that this is an opportunity to practice – but that it is important not to over-act or to be offensive or inappropriate with our partner in the process.
Round One:
Tell the participants to start. Let the practice session go on for about 3 minutes, or until it winds down. Then call it to a halt.
Once the 3 minutes is up, debrief as follows:

  • Invite 2-3 participants (a mix of those who were the Steward and those who were members/managers), to share how they felt during the conversation. Try to get them to focus on their feelings only at this point.
  • Then invite 2-3 participants (a mix of those who were the Steward and those who were members/managers), to share some things that their partner did that helped them work through their difficult conversation. Capture these by adding them to your list of “tips and strategies” already posted or putting a check beside those already identified.

Round Two:
Now run the exercise again with partners switching roles. Give the member/manager just a minute to think of a scenario and then call START.
Let the practice session go on for about 3 minutes or until it seems to be winding down. Then call it to a halt.
Debrief in the same way you did the first time.
Review any new additions from your debrief on what worked, from the notes you have captured on flipchart.
Dig a little to add some ideas or to challenge the ones that are there – (i.e. – Do you really think looking someone in the eye will make a difference if they are mad? What about cultural differences – how should they be addressed/acknowledged in such a situation?).

5. Wrap-up (10 minutes)
Go back to a circle. In a round, each person finishes the following phrase …
Something I will think about the next time I’m in a situation as a Steward where conflict emerges will be _____________.

Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Working through conflict can help resolve problems that surface and achieve unexpected gains:

  • Increased understanding: The discussion needed to resolve conflict expands people's awareness of the situation, giving them an insight into how they can achieve their own goals without undermining those of other people.

  • Improved relationships: When conflict is resolved effectively, parties can develop stronger mutual respect and a renewed faith in their ability to work together.

  • Improved self-knowledge: Conflict pushes individuals to examine their goals in close detail, helping them understand the things that are most important to them, sharpening their focus, and enhancing their effectiveness.

However, if conflict is not handled effectively, the results can be damaging. Conflicting goals can quickly turn into personal dislike. The ability to work together is compromised. Talent is wasted as people disengage. Everyone is left unsatisfied.

Some tips for working through Conflict:
Three guiding principles: Be Calm, Be Patient, Have Respect.
Where possible, identify the goal of your conversation – be wary of goals that rely on the behaviour of the other person (i.e. – change their mind). Look for goals that relate to the source of the conflict; how to resolve the issue successfully.

  • Clarify sources of power between the parties. Name them. This can include rank (manager-worker, elected union officer – member), social power (based on; class, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, level of education, etc.), personal power (expertise, communication skills, size, etc.), and/or power that you garner from other sources (legal rights, support and solidarity from others, etc.)

  • Enter into a respectful exchange. Be calm. Be respectful. Try to build mutual respect. Do your best to be courteous and remain constructive under pressure. Even if others aren’t. It is often helpful for the parties to agree on some ground-rules before entering into discussion (i.e. stick to the issue, use I statements, don’t interrupt, etc.)

  • Keep people and problems separate. Recognize that in many cases the other person is not just "being difficult" – real and valid differences can lie behind conflicting positions. Be sure to focus on issues and leave personalities out of the discussion.

  • Listen. To solve a problem effectively you have to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position. Pay attention to the interests that are being presented and try to understand why the person is adopting her or his position. Some techniques to assist you in active listening include: paraphrasing, summarizing, asking clarifying questions, indicating your understanding.

  • Emotions and Triggers – Know yourself – what can set you off. Recognize that other people have triggers and emotions and try to recognize them (or ask about them) yourself. Speak from a feeling perspective instead of a blaming perspective.

  • Identify the problem – You'll need to agree on the problem(s) that you are trying to solve before you'll find a mutually acceptable solution. Naming the problem(s) will give you a clear understanding of what you are working towards and will force you to look more objectively at where your interests lie. You may also come to the conclusion that there is no real problem, other than miscommunication. If you can't reach a common perception of the problem, then at the very least, you need to understand what the other party sees as the problem.

  • Gather Information. Ask for the other party’s viewpoint and confirm that you respect their opinion and appreciate their cooperation to solve the problem. Try to understand their motivations and goals, and see how your actions may be affecting them. Try to understand the conflict in objective terms: Is it affecting union solidarity? Is it damaging respectful relationships? Is it hampering effective decision-making? What’s really at stake? And so on.

  • If you are wrong, quickly admit it and take responsibility. You could say, “You’re absolutely right, it is my fault and here is what I’ll do to fix it.” Even if you’re NOT wrong, at least give them the benefit of the doubt, “I may be wrong, let’s look at the facts together.” It’s hard to argue with that!

  • Brainstorm possible solutions. If all parties are going to feel satisfied with the resolution, it will help if everyone has had fair input in generating solutions. Brainstorm possible solutions, and be open to all ideas, including ones you never considered before.

  • Negotiate a solution. By this stage, the conflict may be resolved: Both sides may better understand the position of the other, and a mutually satisfactory solution may be clear to all. However you may also have uncovered real differences between your positions. This is where negotiation can be useful to find a solution that, at least to some extent, satisfies everyone.

  • Know when to walk away. Sometimes the other party is unable to work through the conflict with you, no matter what you try. You are best to walk away before you become frustrated. You can do this, and remain committed to resolving the conflict by suggesting some follow-up to the unresolved issues at another time. Or, you may find yourself having to acknowledge that a mutual solution can’t be reached and that you will have to explore other ways of reaching your objectives.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes 3rd party intervention is the right solution. Don’t be afraid to go to a trusted party for assistance (within the PSAC or at the workplace), if you think it might help.

  • If the situation turns verbally abusive, put a stop to it. Firmly but calmly state: “You’re very angry right now and you’re saying things you don’t mean (give them the benefit of the doubt). I’m going to excuse myself. We can talk again after you calm down.” Then leave the room or ask them to leave.

NOTES _____________________________________





Sometimes it is helpful to look at how we react to conflict. In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict. They are not conclusive and may not accurately reflect everyone’s styles, but could be helpful to us in beginning some self-assessment of how we react in situations of conflict. While we may revert to one particular style more often, it should be acknowledged that we may utilize more than one style, even in a given situation.

Ideally we can adopt an approach that meets the situation, resolves the problem, respects people's legitimate interests, and mends damaged relationships.

Thomas and Kilmann's styles are:

  • Competitive: People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things like position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability. This style can be useful when there is an emergency and a decision needs to be made fast; when the decision is unpopular; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.

  • Collaborative: People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important. This style is useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.

  • Compromising: People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, including the compromiser. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming.

  • Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person's own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect on this "favor" you gave. However people may not return favors, and overall this approach is unlikely to give the best outcomes.

  • Avoiding: People tending towards this style seek to evade the conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible, when the controversy is trivial, or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. However in many situations this is a weak and ineffective approach to take.

Four Ways of Handling Confrontation

(With thanks to Training for Change)

When you find yourself in a confrontation, you can choose how to react. Below are four common ways of reacting to confrontation.

Defensiveness – You can choose to resist the confronter by

insisting that what she/he is saying is baseless.

Confronting Back – You can go on the offensive and tell the confronter what your complaints are regarding his/her behaviour.

Acceptance – You can choose to accept what the confronter is saying and perhaps get advice on how you should use the information she/he is giving you.

Dialogue – You can choose to ask for more specific information from the confronter (“Can you give me an example of where you have seen me acting in that way so that I can understand you more clearly?) and also give him/her specific information about what you need in order to resolve the conflict.

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