Work conflicts are inevitable regardless of the size of the team. At your office, perhaps the marketers and developers can’t agree on a launch date. Or as a freelancer, perhaps an irate client is strong-arming you into another round of design revisions. But before we try to deal with a conflict, Mark Gerzon, the author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities, asks us to stop and consider the following question:
Is the conflict hot or cold?
Hot conflict is when one or more parties are highly emotional and doing one or more of the following: speaking loudly or shouting; being physically aggressive, wild or threatening; using language that is incendiary; appearing out of control and potentially explosive.
Cold conflict is when one or more parties seem to be suppressing emotions, or actually appear “unemotional,” and are doing one or more of the following: muttering under their breath or pursing their lips; being physically withdrawn or controlled; turning away or otherwise deflecting contact; remaining silent or speaking in a tone that is passively aggressive; appearing shut down or somehow frozen.
Gauging the temperature of the conflict allows us to deal with the particular situation’s needs. Gerzon suggests that cold conflicts need to be warmed up and that hot conflicts need to be cooled down:
If the conflict is hot: You don’t want to bring participants in a hot conflict together in the same room without settings ground rules that are strong enough to contain the potentially explosive energy. For example, if you are dealing with a conflict between two board members who have already attacked each other verbally, you would set clear ground rules — and obtain agreement to them — at the outset of your board meeting before anyone has a chance to speak.
If the conflict is cold: You can usually go ahead and bring the participants or stakeholders in the conflict together, engaging them in constructive communication. That dialogue, if properly facilitated, should “warm up” the conflict enough so that it can begin to thaw out and start the process of transformation. But you will still need to be vigilant and prepared. Conflict is often cold precisely because so much feeling is being repressed. So you need to skillfully know how to warm it up without the temperature unexpectedly skyrocketing.
As our teams grow, so do the opportunities for conflict. “Conflict resolution, like cooking, works best at the optimal temperatures,” Gerzon says. “You want to bring conflict into a temperature zone where it can become useful and productive.”