Conflict Management for Musicians and Arts Leaders: 4 Tools to Diffuse Conflict and Build Stronger Relationships

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This week, I had the pleasure and privilege of working with the Fellows of Ensemble ACJW/The Academy, the preeminent teaching artist program and ensemble collective of young top-level musicians, on the fascinating topic of conflict management.  

Conflict is inherent in the work of musicians and arts leaders who are passionate and have strong ideas about and high standards of excellence around their work,  along with deep commitment to their cause.  Moreover, because performing musicians like the ACJW Fellows work closely together in an on-going ensemble, having good relationships with the other musicians is critical to the ultimate success of their work.  And when these musicians meet up with others who have the same depth and level of commitment to their ideas, friction is inevitable, especially when time is short.  

Consider the types of conflicts that arise in the course of the work of a teaching artist, including:

  • Differing interpretation of a work;
  • The best way to run rehearsals;
  • Varying levels of commitment to the ensemble;
  • Different communication styles; and
  • Conflicts with a partner/teacher over how to control the classroom, what to teach and the autonomy the teaching artist

And the more the parties differ, rehearsals and teaching begin to suffer as resentments rise, the issues fester and the parties feelings escalate.

This is why conflict management is an essential skill for today’s musicians.

Successful conflict management is one of the most sophisticated uses of emotional intelligence. Conflict is not simply having a disagreement with someone: conflict arises when you experience a discomforting difference with someone over seemingly incompatible issues, principles, behaviors or goals.

5188623575 f24d37b3d9 1This element of discomfort means that your emotions come into play.  And when those uncomfortable differences arise, this is a great opportunity to use your EQ skills in order to manage your relationships effectively.  Indeed, as noted by conflict resolution expert Daniel Shapiro, Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, emotions like anger and fear drive conflict and can be an obstacle to conflict resolution. However, successful conflict management arises when you harness your emotions to shift the paradigm from “me versus you” to “the two of us working side by side facing a shared problem.”

As the Fellows learned, it is possible to turn a challenging conflict situation around and preserve their relationships, as well as aim for the best possible outcome, even under the pressured situations of rehearsing and performing when time is of the essence.

Here, then, are 4 strategies using emotional intelligence to channel your emotions and manage your conflicts more effectively.

4 Strategies to Diffuse Conflict and Build Stronger Relationships

1. Adapt your default conflict management style

We all have a default style of managing conflict, ranging from avoiding the conflict at all costs to insisting on your way of doing things.  In fact, there are 5 different styles of managing conflict.  Rather than using your default style in every situation, learn about the 5 styles and how to best adapt them to a situation at hand.  

This is a great way to use emotional intelligence since you are sensing what another person needs and formulating the appropriate response based on the situation, rather than simply going with your preferred method of dealing with a conflict.

2.Use empathy

Another effective strategy to diffuse the strong emotions that arise in conflict is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask,

Why would a rational, decent person engage in this behavior?

This is an exquisite use of empathy since it can take the sting out of a conflict.  With the recent example of how empathy helped to prevent a school shooting in Georgia, the Fellows were amazed at how effectively empathy helped them to diffuse their anger and see the situation from the viewpoint of the other person.  

By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you begin to see that person as a fellow human being, not a monster.  That helps to lessen the anger so that you can begin to consider that person’s viewpoint.  As a result, you are able to have  a more productive, creative and open dialogue and that can lead to a better outcome of the problem.

3.Listen openly

The problem with a lot of conflicts is not that there is no solution:  it is that the parties take a fixed stand and make a lot of assumptions about what is the best solution, without taking into consideration the other person’s point of view. To overcome that stance, it helps to listen openly to the other person.  

This means getting past your own filters and pre-conceived ideas so that you are flexible and open-minded and ready to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Our ACJW Fellows found that when they were able to adopt this mindset, they were able to take in new information and come up with more creative solutions to their conflicts.

4.Validate the other person

Another powerful tool in diffusing conflict is validation. When you validate another person’s viewpoint, you show her that her position makes sense based on where she is coming from.

For example, suppose you are dealing with a fellow ensemble member who insists on his way of interpreting a piece and has become locked into his stand.  Rehearsals have become tense and the relationships are being to suffer so it’s time to take some action. There is where validation comes in.  In this situation, here is what alidation would look like:

“It sounds as though this interpretation is very important to you.  It makes sense that you think this way since you trained abroad where this is the prevailing style.”

Notice that you are not agreeing with the person.  You are showing him that you have listened carefully and that you understand his point of view, appreciate why he would take that stand and let him know that he entitled to feel the way he does.  And how can he argue with you when you are upholding his right to feel that way?  This can help to open him up to your side of the story and you could then follow up by saying,

“I would like to share my viewpoint so let’s see what we can do here.”

Validation goes a long way to reducing the tension and anger inherent in a conflict because the speaker feels that you care. As our Fellows discovered, validation is a powerful way to head off conflict and preserve relationships because it is a powerful tool for diffusing anger, thus opening up the possibility of dialogue.

So the next time you find yourself in conflict with someone, try these 4 strategies. While there is no guarantee that the conflict will be resolved to 100% satisfaction, these strategies can go a long way to reduce the sting of the conflict, preserve the relationship and quite possibly give rise to a creative and satisfying solution.