7c - Handling conflicts

 What is a conflict?

The word "conflict" means "collision, struggle".

Conflict can't always be avoided when people are together. Conflicting opinions, interests or needs sometimes collide with each other.

A conflict can also exist, even though only one of the parties experiences it or acts it out.

There can be conflicts on the professional level, as well as on the personal level.

A conflict can hinder work or planning and development of new tasks.

Solving problems is really a key competency of a trainer, as you will see.

Solving a conflict is a great chance to learn; it helps to develop new skills. And to find new ways to go on working with colleagues.

Example a report from an education manager (Company, Denmark)
The company has an education manager and instructors for training new apprentices.

The education manager asks one of the instructors, cautiously, if he can take on a new apprentice. The instructor has recently acted noncommittal, when there was talk of new apprentices. The education manager has gotten the impression that the instructor doesn't wish to be involved in training any longer.

As a reaction, the instructor "blows up". "He has always wanted a new apprentice, but the education manager obviously doesn't see him as personally competent!"

When the education manager asks more in depth about the situation, it turns out that the instructor felt personally offended by a comment said during a break several months ago . The subject was a totally different one; they were talking about economy.

Now what needs to be done is to sort out the old conflict, which was only experienced from one side.

 The "iceberg" model
The model to the right shows what happens between two parties in conflict with each other.
  • On the surface the conflict seems to be about a specific issue!
  • But under the surface the relationship of the two people means at least just as much!
The model is inspired by Funk/Malarski.
Click here to download!
 Conflict from different perspectives
In order to understand the apprentice, you need to look at his background; what he brought with him, when he came to you:
Maybe he came directly from school and has never been in a workplace before. It's difficult for him to understand the new expectations, company culture and the workflow.

The youth has to find his place in a heirarchy, follow instructions and take criticism in a way he probably isn't used to.

When there is "trouble brewing" , he lacks the ability to talk about it in an appropriate way.

But not only young people have a hard time expressing feelings and opinions in an appropriate way.

A very different way of relating to conflict situations can be seen among apprentices with very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds :

Maybe they don't want to contradict an authority, so they may nod "yes" to everything, even when they disagree.

Or there may be behaviour that seems aggressive, seen from a more moderate perspective.

In the worst case, a conflict that is handled wrong can make your apprentice drop out!

It's very common that a conflict is experienced differently from the perspective of the apprentice, company trainer or school teacher:

The apprentice experiences problems with the training or rules in the workplace.

The company trainer experiences problems with the apprentice's lack of personal, technical or social competencies.

The school teacher experiences problems with the apprentice's school work or lack of social skills.

All 3 parties will typically wait for the others to take the initiative and responsibility for solving the problem!

The apprentice should learn:
  • to recognize a conflict and the circumstances that influence it
  • how the apprentice him/herself is contributing to the conflict
  • to express facts, feelings and opinions
  • to see things from another side
  • to react to criticism in a rational way and to distinguish between the person and the issue, and between a personal conflict or a professional conflict.
  • to involve outside help in difficult cases
The trainer is no social worker. But often personal issues are just as important as professional ones and make the basis for the apprentice's well-being in the workplace.

In Germany, a study has been done that shows the following: 70% of the apprentices and companies think that dropout could have been prevented, if the parties had spoken with each other in time!

Source: Westdeutscher Handwerkskammertag, 2006.
 Body language
We can communicate by using a lot of words.

But we can also communicate with each other through our body language:
  • Eye contact
  • Body posture
  • Facial expression
  • Hand and arm movements (gestures)
Conflict can also happen via body language!

NOTE: Be very aware that body language means different things in different cultures:
  • Different trades have different cultures. Even workplaces within the same trade can be very different.
  • Different countries have different cultures. This can have significance, if you have apprentices with different ethnic backgrounds.
 Development of a conflict
If intervention doesn't come in time, a conflict can escalate to a degree that is hard to fathom.
How bad things can get, is something trade unions can tell many stories about!
- For the employee involved it can be a personal tragedy.

And the overall cost of escalated conflicts for companies and society is high.
It is important to seize a bad atmosphere right from the start and clarify disagreements.

NOTE: There can also be professional disagreements that should be taken care of.
See the 9 steps in escalation of a conflict!

Click here to download!
 Rules for conversation

A conversation can work wonders. Studies done in German vocational education show that 2/3 of all dropouts could have been prevented, if the trainer and apprentice had talked about their problems.

Click here or on the picture to the right to download some simple communication rules for difficult conversations. 



7 - Cooperation