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These frankly stunning findings from 30 years of research provide new clues into resolving conflict at work

What’s really intriguing about John Gottman’s 30 year body of work on relationship stability in marriages is that it provides new clues into solving a problem that we face almost every day in the workplace – best way to resolve conflict at work before they impact.

A little background. Gottman is currently emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington. He has written 190 papers and 40 books, as well as formal qualifications in mathematics, so his research is highly data-driven and thoroughly peer-reviewed.

The problem is ‘perpetual problems’

The first clue from his research into improving relationships is his – frankly stunning - finding from 14 longitudinal studies of over 6000 people: that 69% of (marital) conflicts are unresolvable. Gottman calls these ‘perpetual problems’.

Gottman then shows that people in successful long-term relationships (Gottman defines long term as more than 6 years) employ coping strategies for these types of conflicts, not problem-solving strategies.

In other words, the successful people are not trying to fix the vast majority of conflicts.

This counter-intuitive finding had me thinking about whether managers and staff in the workplace are using up valuable time and emotional energy employing problem-solving strategies by default to resolve conflict at work?

Because if they are, Gottman’s research is saying that is not a winning strategy.

Surely, marriages are not like workplace relationships

At this point, I welcome your objection that marriages are not like workplace relationships.

I would say that there are practical similarities between marriages and workplace relationships and here is why:

  • Marriage conflicts are commonly between two people, and two-person conflicts are also common in the workplace;
  • Marriage conflicts are often about relative power (‘do this my way or not at all’), and such conflicts are also common in the workplace. For example, conflicts that arise from one person withholding approval for another, are often related to relative power (say connected to KPIs or Delegated Levels of Authority).

What would be the best way to resolve conflicts at work?

Based on Gotttman’s findings, what would be a winning strategy?

It is for us all to be well-practised in how to cope with unresolvable conflicts at work.

And so you’d ask yourself questions like:

  • ‘How do I work effectively with someone with whom I just don’t agree?’
  • ‘How do I suspend judgement and keep an open mind to other options?’
  • ‘What sources of facts can we agree on?’
  • ‘How do I keep myself motivated to work with this person, knowing that this will be a long haul?’

Resolving conflicts at work that may be ‘situational’

There is also something else that is intriguing in Gottman’s work. Gottman calls the remaining 31% of conflicts ‘situational’. He says these conflicts are over a particular topic and there’s is no deeper or hidden meaning behind each person’s position.

In other words, conflicts at work about situational topics – say, about the lack of resources for a particular project, or the minimum margin level on a particular product – are the only types of workplace conflicts that should be addressed by problem solving strategies.

This, potentially could be the big shift in terms of what we are seeing in some workplaces today.

The big question now is:

How can you bring this fundamental change into resolving conflicts at work?

If you are encountering some workplace tension, contact Matt to help you cfind the best way to resolve conflicts at work. With the right tools, good leaders can find resolutions that are beneficial and acceptable for both parties.

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