Constructive Conflict

Managing tough conversations in the firehouse

When firefighters talk openly, developing ideas together, debating different perspectives and blending those views, they work better together. They work as a team.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Because different ideas and opinions are examined, that team will move forward together, actively aligned and ready to tackle any objective. Yet many firefighters avoid constructive conflict.

Do you and your team of firefighters have tough conversations? Do you air every concern, reservation, and alternative, without holding anything back? Do you debrief your training and the incidents you respond to? Do you walk away from your meetings knowing that you can count on them to do what they say and to support you as you move the team forward? Are you able to focus your energy on the team’s objectives?

Many times we see constructive conflict turn into destructive conflict, which creates tension and resentment. It undermines relationships within the team and distracts from the team’s common goals. Or, if the team avoids conflict, it becomes guarded and shares fewer ideas. Questions remain unasked, ideas and opinions go unchallenged, and members of the team do not feel united. This can lead to a lack of support in each other’s decisions, which will compromise safety and execution.

How can you and your team of firefighters encourage constructive conflict and avoid sliding down into destructive conflict? The combination of three principles can help keep your team’s conflict positive: listening up, sharing a common commitment and creating a climate of trust.

Listening Up

Leadership authority Stephen R. Covey makes a relevant point in his bestselling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The fifth habit he lists is: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

The cause of almost all conflict is often a lack of understanding. If we don’t listen to others, then how can we truly understand the situation? We must learn to listen with more than just our ears; we must listen with our eyes and our hearts. Listen to the words being said, but also get a feel for how the message is delivered. Listen to the tone and watch the body language. To really understand what someone else is saying, we should listen first, and talk second.

A team that shares a common purpose is inspired to work hard together. Team members working towards a common goal will be more willing to engage in tough conversations. Bringing everyone together in an open discussion lets them see the cause and effects of the issues facing the team. Being part of the planning process triggers a valuable buy-in from everyone. When everyone feels that they have collective ownership, they will come to know and trust one another.

Climate of Trust

Trust doesn’t just happen — it has to be earned, and it’s earned best by giving it. When trust is present, people can usually set aside their egos or individual wants and focus on the team. Because they value their relationship with the team, they can now feel comfortable communicating their intentions and perceptions or making amends as necessary. Teams that foster trust become stronger and more productive through frequent and open communication.

In recent years, the fire service has experienced an alarming number of firefighter injuries and deaths because of a lack of communication or the inability of firefighters to speak up.

Creating a cohesive firefighting team has never been more challenging. The interpersonal dynamics of a team or crew can change constantly. Members of great firefighting teams openly express themselves in ways to understand and improve the organization.

They must be willing to address conflicts, constructively, when they occur. Teams that practice constructive conflict make better decisions and are more productive.

Open communication, a common commitment, and trust will keep your team positive and productive.

This post on Constructive Conflict was originally published for The Company Officer Series at FireRescue1.com on July 30, 2007.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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