Leadership Operations

Tips For Managing Conflict In Healthcare

Guest post by Steven P. Dinkin co-author of The Exchange Strategy for Managing Conflict in Healthcare,

Healthcare has always made for stressful workplaces. Just ask the leaders who must keep their departments running smoothly. The high stakes nature of healthcare plus too many patients plus overworked staff plus the usual human frailties and failings—people running late for their shifts, interdepartmental misunderstandings, garden variety personality clashes—add up to a lot of potential conflict. That’s not good for patients. And now that health reform has upped the ante, linking reimbursement to quality and patient perception of care metrics, it’s not good for health care.

In times of rapid change, stress levels escalate, conflicts rise, and the ability to collaborate breaks down.

That’s bad news for patient care, safety, and satisfaction, and it could be bad news for an organization’’s very survival. Right now we need employees to be fully engaged and zeroed in on working together to get patients well and keep them happy. We simply can’’t afford a culture of conflict.

Any strategy to meaningfully deal with conflicts has to address the avoidance and aversion we all have to conflict emotions involved in conflict: fear, anger, disdain, distress, shame, to name a few.  Most strategies to help leaders deal better with communication or team building do not include skills to address the negative emotions surrounding conflict.

The Exchange Strategy for Managing Conflict in Health Care does. It derives from thirty years of mediation and conflict resolution experience and provides leaders with a proactive, step-by-step process and unique communication skills to successfully resolve conflicts.

With it, any leader can learn to disarm challenging emotions, model needs-based understanding, and lead joint problem-solving collaborations among staff, patients, and families.  Hospital leaders can especially benefit as conflict managers because they are the ones to whom others complain.

Here are five tips for managing conflict from The Exchange Strategy:

  1. Respond, don’’t react.  Put a pause between action and reaction, especially an emotional reaction!
  2. Choose the right leader.  Make sure the parties aren’’t ‘infantilized’ by a leader who’’s too far above them.
  3. Listen.  Ask an open-ended question, then stop. It can be as simple as, ‘So, tell me, what’s going on?’ You’’ll know it’s time to insert yourself again when the discussion turns negative.
  4. Use and encourage positive language. Think before you speak. Use positive, easy-to-understand language.  And remember, it’s a conversation, not a trial!
  5. Build trust. Trust can’t be demanded.  Be sure to ask how each party is affected by the conflict, and, secondly, what each person really needs.

Disputes are bound to happen.  Throw in stress and the high stakes nature of healthcare and you can guarantee that conflicts will arise. The good news is that you, your doctors, nurses and other medical and non-medical staff members can learn the skills to resolve conflicts and strengthen your organization while you do it.

Steven P. Dinkin has directed the National Conflict Resolution Center since 2003 where he has spearheaded the effort to bring conflict resolution training to the workplace.
Barbara Filner has designed and conducted workshops on mediation and conflict resolution in the workplace in the United States and Europe.
Lisa Maxwell has been a mediator since 1985 and as director of NCRC’s Training Institute is the lead designer of The Exchange Strategy.

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