Conflict is a good thing. That’s an idea that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned since childhood, but according to business experts, buying into that notion could be the solution to many business woes. They believe that conflict, if harnessed and used properly, actually can be positive for your building service contracting business.

Of course, it would be wrong to think that fisticuffs or screaming matches are positive solutions. But research has shown that organizations that have a healthy level of conflict are more creative and innovative than those that have very little conflict.

“We create as many problems by avoiding conflict as we do by being too aggressive with conflict,” says Lynne Eisaguirre, author of The Power of a Good Fight (2002). “Conflict is really just change trying to happen. Conflicts could be resolved earlier if people didn’t avoid the issues. If we avoid it and let it go on, it results in a negative spiral.”
Conflicts are a routine part of every cleaning business. Everyday issues, such as scheduling problems, personality clashes and people not feeling respected, can be resolved if they are addressed head-on in a good fight.

So just what is a good fight? Good fights address ideas, not personalities; they are open, not masked; and they involve managed emotion.

“Productive conflict is a matter of skill, just like learning how to use the computer,” says Eisaguirre.

Path to a positive fight
The first step is learning when it is, and is not, wise to address conflict.

“You can’t fight them all and you can’t win them all,” says Barbara Pachter, author of The Power of Positive Confrontation (2001). “Ask yourself if the situation has an effect on you. If it doesn’t then it isn’t worth fighting.”

If it is worth fighting, there is a path you can take to keep the process positive. Eisaguirre and Pachter offer a similar technique for hashing things out.

Define the problem – It isn’t enough to say that you dislike someone or that they upset you. Figure out the specific things that person is doing, with which you have problems. For example, does a manager institute change without input or does an employee abuse break times?

Seek a solution – Ask yourself what will solve the problem. If you can’t figure out what will change things for the better, then you are not ready to confront the person. And solutions need to be specific, such as asking for worker input on important decisions or using an electronic timecard.

Rehearse the fight – Before engaging in a conflict, rehearse the conversation. Ask a trusted friend to go over possible outcomes with you. This will help you keep your cool during the real thing.

Know your limits – Before the conversation, set your own “exit point.” This is the point at which it makes more sense for you to walk away from the conflict than it does to keep working on it. Solving some fights can take more energy than the outcome is worth.

Define your style – Identify your own conflict style, which is important to know before engaging in a good fight.

Eisaguirre defines five such conflict styles:

  • Pit bulls like to argue and debate, threaten and intimidate.
  • Golden retrievers are extremely loyal and need to please people and be liked.
  • Roadrunners try to avoid conflicts at all costs.
  • Cobras talk to other people rather than the person directly involved in the conflict.
  • Eagles approach conflict with skill and balance.

While no style is right or wrong, yours may be unconsciously interfering with your ability to have positive conflict. Knowing your style will help you adapt to one that is appropriate for each situation.

When and where – It is best to go into a conflict at the right time, in the right place, and when you are in the appropriate mood. Address issues before you’ve had time to stew in them, which may lead you to blow up inappropriately. Be sure to have the fight in a private place and do so when you are calm and rational.

Set the rules – Before you begin the discussion, lay some ground rules, such as no profanities or no personal attacks.

“In the midst of a heated debate, you do get emotional,” Eisaguirre says. “But there is a skillful way to express emotions.”

Use positive feedback and avoid harsh criticism. And be aware of your nonverbal communication, Pachter says. For instance, wagging your finger in someone’s face, or crossing your arms when someone is trying to talk to you, are not positive ways to communicate.

State your purpose – When you sit down for the discussion, tell the other person what your goal is in raising the issue. Make sure he or she understands that the problem is the enemy, not them. If blame rears its ugly head, reframe the issue to put the focus back on the problem.

Talk, talk, talk – Take as long as necessary to resolve the issue; don’t rush things. Take breaks during the discussion, as needed, to cool off. Remember that it may take more than one session to work things out.

The goal is to reach a solution that allows both sides to get what they want. This is different than compromise, where each side only gets half of what they wanted.

“Where conflict goes downhill is when each person has a position and they believe those are the only two options,” Pachter says. “The real creativity comes in when you discuss many outcomes and come up with something better than either of your own positions.”

Come to a resolution – Once you reach an agreement, be sure to make things final. Decide how to implement the next steps and write this down for future reference, to avoid having the same fight later.

Client conflict
Obviously, things can be a bit tricky when the source of conflict is a client. After all, the customer is always right. Pachter says these same principles can work with a client as long as the rules are laid out from the beginning.

Tell each client how much you value your customers and that your goal is to establish long-term business relationships. Explain that any long-term relationship has disagreements and then share with them your method for handling conflict in a positive way.

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa.