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Conflict in the time of Covid 19

Mark Simpson
Covid 19

The current pandemic has proved an opportunity for some businesses, a killer for others. Whether we’re thriving or just surviving right now, conflict is an inherent part of life. Covid-19 has simply taken the issues we all find ourselves dealing with on a day to day basis, shaken them all up and dropped a new mixture of them back in our laps.

The media is full of examples:

  • Those profiting from shortages in supply (toilet rolls and hand sanitiser anyone?)
  • Commercial tenants demanding rent remissions, reductions, rebates or contract changes from their landlords.
  • Employers cutting wages, benefits and jobs.
  • Unions demanding jobs be brought back onshore. (Vodafone, Air NZ)
  • “Done deals” falling through when one party is unable or unwilling to meet previously agreed terms, or simply changes their minds (Augusta, Metlifecare, Stuff and NZME)
  • Organisations demanding cost reductions from suppliers at the same time as others are trying to push through price rises (Rates rise anyone?)
  • Delays and issues throughout the supply chain (how long does it take a courier to bring a package across Auckland? Or dump it in South Auckland?)
  • Even the “Buy NZ” campaign – Do Kiwis appreciate the costs incurred in providing the great product and service our tourism industry can provide? More importantly are they prepared to pay for it? (There was a reason many Kiwis holidayed in the Gold Coast, Bali, Thailand and Pacific Islands rather than in NZ.)
  • Vested interests everywhere demanding “the Government” (ie anyone but themselves) support them financially.

How you respond to and handle conflict, will be the difference between your thriving organisation continuing to grow, your struggling one beginning to grow again or the end of the line for both.

When faced with conflict we have a number of alternatives:

  • We can postpone, bury our head in the sand and hope it all goes away (it won’t).
  • We can give in (and lose out or even go bust).
  • We can haggle and split the difference (often leaving everyone feeling less than happy)
  • We can try to force them to give in, impose our own solution, raise the ante, call the lawyers (and pay them a fortune), incur the time and costs
  • Seek a Court arbitrated outcome (where a Judge does split the difference for you, with the only beneficiaries being the lawyers)
  • We can argue and persuade (and hope they’ll agree with you).
  • We can problem solve, but do they see the problem from the same perspective?
  • Or you could negotiate.

The last 3 of these alternatives give us the best chance of resolving conflict. Surprisingly, as a negotiator, negotiation would not be where I’d start.

Our first port of call should be to try to get the other person to see things our way through persuasion. Making well-constructed, convincing arguments using compelling language may enable us to resolve a conflict quickly without having to sacrifice anything. If that works – fine. More often than not though we find ourselves repeating our point of view over and over, or even pleading with the other side. If that happens, persuasion is not working and it’s time to move on with a different approach.

Often, conflicts are simply problems looking for a solution. If parties can come together collaboratively with the “we’re in it together” approach, built on mutual trust, sometimes a solution can be built by working together. However, problem-solving only works when both parties see the problem from the same perspective. When we don’t, we’re trying to address and solve different problems.

If (or when) persuasion or problem-solving do not work, then it’s time to consider negotiating. You may ask, “Why don’t we start with negotiation?” The short answer is that negotiation is a trading activity that comes at a cost. It involves making movement, trading things that are hopefully of low cost to us but high value to the other party, in return for things that are hopefully of lower cost to them but of higher value to us.

We also risk setting precedents for the future and for some people, moving from a previously held position can cause them to feel they’re losing face.

If on balance, we believe the costs of all these things are lower to us and those we represent than the costs of the conflict remaining unresolved or deadlocked, only then should we look to negotiate.

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