On Conflict Management: A Chat with Dr John Ng

Conflicts are part and parcel of our lives, be it at work or at home. However, if managed well, they are good growth opportunities and would serve to deepen relationships. To learn how to manage them well, we picked the brains of conflict and mediation expert, Dr John Ng.

1. Perhaps you could share with us how you came about this area of interest?

My initial interest in conflict was, of course, sparked off by my own personal experience – at home and my family. I begin to understand how difficult it is to manage conflict. Also, not only to manage but to recover from conflict.

Conflicts are so real; they are so common and inevitable. My first experience was seeing my own family: my own brothers fighting with my father and how my mother, who was a real conflict avoider, reacted. My brothers used to submit to my father but as they grew older, they became angry and, together as siblings, we will complain but we can't do anything. We will tell my mother but she was say don't rock the boat. However, it's all inside, it is eating you up and it is getting very difficult. As I grew older, the conflicts became more violent as feelings were all bottled up. But that was the environment I was brought up, hiding, avoiding and yet unresolved and becoming even more hurtful.

Then I studied conflict in the States as well as mediation as a process of intervening. It is very powerful. I didn't know it could be done so well. Mediators can somehow – with their skills – draw out the pain, address the issue and mend the relationship. I was heartened it can be done!

I came back very excited. I began to do some consultation work in Indonesia. And they asked me since you are the conflict expert, why don't you teach my managers how to deal with conflicts? But when I interviewed the managers, they said we don't have conflict. When asked what do they mean, they shared that whenever they don't agree with their boss, they leave the place, don't talk to them or simply give in. About the work that has to be down, they just slow down and to the boss they say nothing but talk behind his back. It is very frustrating process for the boss, managers, the workers… and it is a very toxic workplace. So, I thought: "Oh, smiling tiger, hidden dragon".

2. That's the title of your latest book… But why specifically the Asian context?

Yes, I began to realize not only in Indonesia – in every Asian country that has "face" concerns. Of course, Americans and Europeans have "face" concerns but they interpret it very differently. Because Asians tend to be very indirect – I talked about "ke qi" and "face" in my book. I have been studying, doing, practicing and helping individuals, organizations, parents… so that's why I have a clue on how to manage such conflicts.

3. Are the ways Asians and Westerners face conflicts vastly different?

Of course there are some similarities in that we don't like conflict! But conflict is inevitable. Most people think of conflict as negative. Whether Americans or Chinese or Japanese, this affects the way you relate to one another and how you manage the conflict. Because it is bad, so I will avoid it right? And the third similarity would be that most do not know how to manage conflict well.

4. Is it always good to face conflict?

I would like to say that there is always a place avoiding or giving in. For example, I would say, if you are driving and someone gives you the middle finger, avoid it. First of all, think, is the issue so important to you? You avoid conflict also when emotions are high, when you are already so angry.

However, many of us insist that we have to settle it now. But the more you talk about it, the worse it becomes – avoid it! Take a break, tell him come back and talk about it later. However, another problem people have is that they tend to avoid it. They don't know how to deal with conflict and recover from it. Especially for long-term relationships, I would say could up with a protocol to manage conflicts, how to fight fair and fight well. Also, time your fight; timing is so important.

5. In a situation when you are keen to resolve the conflict and the other party is not, how do you manage the conflict?

It will be difficult for you. I also mentioned in my book that most conflicts are irresolvable. And the sooner we recognize this, the better. So you have to manage around the conflict. Like a parent wants to give the child vegetables to eat and the child doesn't want to eat it but she insists. But if you can understand your mother's motivation for it, maybe you can compromise and can eat a little bit. Has the conflict been resolved? The issue will always be there but you lower your expectations and work around it. You don't get angry or emotional about the issue when it happens again.

6. On the other hand, if you are the one who is really worked up facing a conflict, what would your advice be?

Step back – and take at least 20 minutes for that. It is for your whole brain system to cool down, and when you are out, please don't rehearse all the bad things.
The key is to find meaning and value in the conflict situation. Ask yourself what's going on, why are you so angry and is it so important you should be angry?

7. Maybe you could share with us some of the more common conflicts at the workplace?

In the office, a lot of conflicts happen because of data such as insufficient data. Sometimes we make wrong decisions based on insufficient data which causes more conflicts – or misperceived data or prejudices about the data. For example, I ask John to come at 10am but he heard 10.30am. Then I get so worked up thinking: "Wah, John is so irresponsible. He doesn't care about his work." And we don't talk about it and we never find out why he came back. This unwillingness to ask may cause even more miscommunication when we imagine a lot of things – or what you call perverse data.

8. What advice would you give to a fresh graduate in a new work environment?

First, know yourself. Know your own style of communication; know your personality type; know what you can do and cannot do; know your habits, good and bad; know what makes you angry or what are your hot buttons. The better you know yourself, the better you can manage situations when they arise.

Secondly, be realistic in your expectations of the workplace, of your boss, of your colleagues, or of the demands of your work. Do not have this idealistic picture of the workplace. Realise that conflict is common but you have to work with everybody and you will have disagreements.

Then thirdly I would say, accept and enjoy conflict and learn from it. Even if you go through the worst, ask what you can learn from it, what you can learn about relations and how to do things better. Don't nurture your hurts but to recover and learn from it. And if you can adopt this learning attitude, I think it would make you a much better person rather than become a critical and cynical person.

About Dr John Ng: On top of being an appointed mediator with the Singapore Mediation Centre and the Ministry of Law, Singapore, Dr John Ng is the President of Meta as well as the Honorary Chair of the Board of Governance for both Eagles Mediation & Counselling Centre (EMCC) and Eagles Communications. The esteemed writer has also penned the books Dim Sum for Great Marriages, Dim Sum Leadership, Dim Sum for the Family and Dim Sum for Great Parenting.

You might also like: Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon http://freshgrads.sg/index.php/articles/read/1452-smiling-tiger-hidden-dragon

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