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7 dispute resolution tips for physicians leading care teams

Medical Economics JournalMedical Economics May 2024
Volume 101
Issue 5

Resolving conflict: ©KrakenImages - stock.adobe.com

Resolving conflict: ©KrakenImages - stock.adobe.com

I have worked closely with many physicians as a full-time dispute resolver for more than 35 years. In that time, I have witnessed some amazing teams and some that were less than amazing. To keep the amazing ones operating at a high level and help the others to improve, here are seven insights gleaned from my years as a patient, parent and service provider to the profession.

1 Get trained. Although we all develop some ability to navigate conflict during our upbringing, there is much more to it than common sense. Start reading. Get trained. Training your staff in these crucial areas helps, too. The more conflict resolvers there are, the better.

2 Take psychological safety seriously.When each member of a medical team feels empowered to offer ideas and critiques without fear of retribution from supervisors or colleagues, when they do not need to be armored up to deal with harsh remarks at the coffee station, when they can be critiqued constructively, engagement soars. And the result is a workplace that is not only more pleasant but also more productive.

3 Understand the main styles of conflict. Broadly speaking, when confronted with conflict, some people become controlling, some accommodating, and some avoidant. These styles have been described, respectively, as high in assertiveness/low in empathy, low in assertiveness/high in empathy, and low in empathy and assertiveness.

It is useful to recognize your own conflict style and that of others. Once you understand that people approach conflict differently, you may be able to intervene in your own problems and those of colleagues differently and more sensitively.

4 Replace judgment with curiosity. When you hear someone recount a story of how a conflict started, you are likely to have an emotional response to what they say. Instead, when you feel the hairs on the back of your neck start to tingle or your brow starts to furrow, use these magic words: Tell me more about that. An open-ended invitation to expand is more helpful than making a statement.

5 Conflict can be productive. There are generally two kinds of conflict: task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict is defined as a disagreement about the best way to get something done. On the other hand, if the two colleagues start to take the disagreement personally, it becomes relationship conflict, and that is destructive. Many conflicts start as task conflict and turn into relationship conflict. If mindful of this distinction, you can have more of the productive kind of conflict and less of the destructive kind.

6 Caregivers need care too. Medicine is a high-stress field, especially now, with high demand for top-notch care and a shortage of personnel. To prevent conflict, arrange time for staff to decompress while on the job. Be supportive and use language that promotes a strong sense of self. Make lists of resources for mental health. Broadcast them widely and make clear that it is a good thing to engage in self-care and the care of peers.

7 Know when to enlist outside help. It is no more a sign of weakness to call in a conflict resolution professional than it is to have an accountant do your taxes or a plumber fix your leaking sink. It is a sign of wisdom and strength to know when you are in over your head.

Richard Birke is the chief architect of JAMS Pathways and is experienced in resolving complex, multiparty disputes.

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