How does a woman leader deal with conflict without being labeled “aggressive,” “overly emotional,” or “too nice”? And how do you make conflict healthy?
The way men and women typically approach conflict is affected by societal norms and is not always healthy, says Susan A. Mason, principal of Vital Visions Consultants, a keynote speaker at AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center (WLC), and a member of AMA’s online course faculty.
In a new WLC webinar, “Women as Assertive Leaders of Healthy Conflict,” Mason says that women tend to approach conflict by compromising or working toward a consensus. Men tend to resolve conflict through competition. They are expected to be aggressive, and society values the trait. But when women are aggressive—or the opposite, passive—it’s seen as a negative, Mason says. Because this perception impacts hiring and promotions for women, “these stereotypes can affect our life outcomes,” she says. (See Susan Mason’s responses to webinar attendees’ questions about healthy conflict.)
A different way of approaching conflict
Mason believes that being assertive is the most effective approach to resolving conflict. An assertive, collaborative approach allows for healthy conflict, which in turn allows teams to get more work done, be more creative, and achieve more goals. “In the evolving twenty-first century, it’s not about just winning; it’s about being collaborative, being innovative…getting things done with and through others,” she says.
Being either aggressive or passive is not a desirable approach to conflict. The first isn’t respectful of the other person, and the second isn’t being true to yourself and your needs. “If you’re assertive, you can act on your own best interests and not feel guilty or wrong in doing so,” Mason says.
A model for resolving conflict assertively and collaboratively
Mason teaches the “AEIOU” communication model as a way to be assertive when handling conflict. It takes some preparation and thought, and it won’t work well if emotions are running high. She suggests that you try to reset your emotions—or “center yourself”—so that you can communicate effectively. Then, use the AEIOU method to approach the other party confidently and respectfully:
- Acknowledge the other person’s positive intentions. This helps us not to take the other person’s actions personally—which in turn makes the conflict easier to resolve.
- Express your thoughts and feelings about the matter.
- Identify what you need and want—propose a positive change.
- Outline the benefits of the outcome or proposal to both of you.
- Understand. Express what you understand will be happening next, and make sure the other person understands as well.
The AEIOU model allows you to respectfully consider the other person’s needs and desires and then collaborate with each other to reach a positive outcome for both sides. As Mason explains, “It’s highly effective at pulling together and synergizing assertiveness and collaborative types of approaches or compromises to conflict.”
The 5-point conflict formula
Mason further employs a 5-point formula to approach a conflict strategically. It works as follows:
Formula: When ______ I experience ______. I feel ______. I would prefer ______. As a result ______.
She offers this example: “When you speak up in meetings and take credit for work we have done together, I experience low recognition and fewer step-up opportunities. I feel frustrated when this happens and would prefer if you would specifically note my name when sharing ideas we have generated collaboratively. As a result, we will remain productive colleagues who are getting recognition for producing good solutions to our department’s challenges.”
By offering a benefit to both parties at the end, you’ll give the other person more of an incentive to take your suggestions seriously and implement them. Mason says she places emotions (“I feel…”) after what happened (“I experience…”) because starting with an emotion first often causes people to stop listening.
“Conflict surrounds us. It’s actually how we deal with most of the decisions in our life,” Mason says. “We need to be in a place where we can express our needs, our wants, our desires, in a respectful way that allows others to give us what we need and want and desire. But that is a big order sometimes, particularly when we’re looking into the eyes of conflict.… That’s why keeping it healthy is so critical.”
AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center helps women become more effective leaders through networking, webinars, live training workshops, and more. See the calendar of upcoming WLC events.