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Writing sample - article

Title: The Challenge of Organizational Conflict
by Leslie Ehle
magazine article originally published in Washington Executive, newsletter of the Washington Society of Association Executives, May 1985.

For the past week, and then some, my attention has been almost totally occupied with conflict. No, not conflict I've been embroiled in--rather, I've been completing a chapter on the subject of organizational conflict for a book called Transforming Leadership, to be published this fall.

Given that preoccupation, it seemed appropriate that I share a few thoughts on that perennially thorny topic with association execs.

1. Conflict is NOT a problem -- it's an opportunity in disguise.

When our bodies are out of tune, we develop symptoms of illness. Likewise, organization "dis-ease" surfaces in the form of conflict.

Conflict is a potent "messenger" about issues that need our attention: member needs that are not being addressed by the association's activities; obsolete structures that no longer respond effectively to association activity patterns; unacknowledged differences in priorities for the use of association resources.

When we find ourselves in a conflict situation, gut level "fight or flight" reactions tend to take over. What we need to do instead is to take a moment to "step back," and then ask ourselves some key questions: "How am I viewing this situation? How can I view it differently? What can I learn from this? How can I apply this learning?"

2. The better our communication skills are, the more effective we'll be in handling conflict.

When was the last time you spent time learning, actively practicing or reviewing the processes of effective verbal communication? If you've never focused on this topic, or if it's been some time since you took a course on communication skills, make it a top priority in your continuing education plans!

Clear communication will do more to prevent conflict than any other step we can take, and is our most powerful tool for resolving conflict when it does occur. In particular, through "active listening," we can make sure that we hear and are heard accurately--and how many times have you witnesed a disagreement get out of hand because of mis-information?

3. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Contrary to what modern advertising mythology would have us believe, there are no instant cures to the important problems we encounter. When working with conflict, a quick fix is likely to be nothing more than a band-aid on a serious infection. It takes time, energy, focused attention and caring to discover the roots of a conflict, to develop workable, effective action plans, and to implement and follow up on those plans. And it takes the active participation of all those involved--a process that, while time-consuming, pays off in solutions that work and that address real issues.

Conflict is a fact of life, even in the most effective associations. It is up to us, as association executives, to help our members discover and work with the important challenges and messages in conflict situations--challenges that can help keep our associations the lively, responsive and growing organizations we want them to be.

© 1985 Leslie Ehle

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