Are you leading a team where members are experiencing frequent conflict? Or perhaps you have two (or more) teams in conflict with each other – debating over priorities, workloads, processes and more? Nightmare.
Of course, it’s difficult for the conflicting parties – no doubt they find the situation stressful.
But it’s also incredibly stressful for those who are leading conflicting teams or people. You just want to do a good job and get stuff done. You never imagined trying to placate all the strong, opposing voices in your organisation!
It’s even more difficult if you’re ‘conflict averse’. And, yes, I sit firmly in this camp too… It’s hard when you can see all the different points of view and empathise with everyone, and yet, the situation doesn’t get any better, does it?!
So what often happens?
We bury our heads in the sand and hope that, somehow, this all goes away.
But conflict within or between teams doesn’t disappear; it festers. If it goes unresolved for long periods of time, it can also start to negatively impact everyone’s physical and mental health – including yours. It can impact morale, productivity and profitability too. I call this situation ‘build-up of the unsaid’. And the negative ripples from it aren’t to be underestimated.
This is why solving any type of conflict (before it escalates and impacts you, your staff, and the quality of the work) is key.
So here’s a handy step-by-step process you can follow to resolve any disputes in your organisation.
1. Identify the conflict
Before you swoop in and try to tackle the conflict, you want to get a good handle on what’s happening. The last thing you want is to jump in with two feet and read the situation completely wrong. So it’s important to take a step back and try and fully understand what’s happening first. A good way to do this is to set aside some time to write down the key, known issues. This will also help you remove yourself from the situation emotionally.
Even if you feel like you know the conflict inside out, I still advise you to take this step. It’s a good exercise to do as it can give you a more balanced view of the situation – no matter how close you think you are to it. You never know – you may even come up with different angles and perspectives that will give you an advantage when it’s time to talk it through with the people involved.
Things you may want to find out, think about, or write down include:
- What does the conflict seem to be about? And is that really the issue, or does it hide something else? Dig deep if you can.
- Who is involved and impacted?
- What is causing the conflict?
- What are the key issues that need to be resolved?
- What assumptions or judgements are being made on either side? (Be rigorous with yourself too – what do you know as fact vs where might opinion be swaying you?!)
- And do you have any specific ideas or suggestions or a particular goal or steer around the potential solution?
2. Prepare for the conversation
Nope, it’s not time to swoop in and try to fix the problem just yet, because there’s still work to do. This may sound arduous, but it’s much better to have documented research on the conflict before you try to solve it. The more prep you do now, the easier it will be to resolve.
So once you’ve answered these questions, complete the following steps…
- Do your homework. Do some additional research and digging to better understand and define the conflict. Gather additional information about the situation and speak to more people if you need to. Try and obtain as many facts (rather than opinions) as you can.
- Determine the scope and severity of the conflict. What impact does this conflict have on the team or the people involved? Do you need support from HR or speak to other departments or directors?
- Identify the parties involved and their perspectives. Before you meet with the invested parties to discuss the conflict, make sure you have identified who needs to attend that meeting, and at this stage meet the parties in conflict separately. Try to understand everyone’s point of view in advance and to the best of your abilities. Ensure you understand from each perspective what they feel has happened to bring the relationship to where it is now, how what’s happened has impacted them, and what they’d like to happen from here. Effectively, you want to become a true expert on this topic!
3. Choose an appropriate conflict resolution method
Before you bring everyone together to try to solve this problem, you’ll need to understand the best method to solve the conflict.
We can’t just stick everyone in a room, lock the doors and hope for the best (although, let’s be honest… sometimes wouldn’t that be great?!)
When it comes to conflict resolution methods, you need to decide which one is most appropriate. Some examples of conflict resolution methods include:
- Negotiation. This is a form of direct or indirect communication where opposing parties discuss what action they might want to take in order to resolve their dispute.
- Move into a facilitated conversation. This is a restorative process, a little like mediation, in that it involves a neutral third party. This person facilitates a carefully prepared, constructive and boundaried conversation with those in conflict for mutual benefit and to get the stuck situation unstuck! Generally speaking, the mediator is someone who is neutral and not directly involved in the conflict.
- Arbitration is typically used when the people involved in the conflict can’t come to an agreement. The resolution of the dispute is delegated to someone who assumes the role of arbitrator. They will come to a final, binding decision on behalf of everyone involved.
Pros and cons of each conflict resolution method
Here are (at a high level) some of the pros and cons of each method.
- Negotiation Pros: typically happens directly between the people involved in the conflict, and it’s a great opportunity to come to an agreement that reflects everyone’s best interests.
- Negotiation Cons: Unfortunately, negotiation doesn’t always work or isn’t feasible in all situations. Whether negotiation is an option or not may also depend on the severity of the scenario.
- Facilitated Conversation Pros: This can be incredibly useful when two (or more) parties involved in a conflict want to find a solution but, for whatever reason, struggle to communicate (directly and constructively) with each other. Having a third party to hold the space and keep things on track can work well when emotions are running high, the situation is stressful, or the different parties involved blame each other.
- Facilitated Conversation Cons: Not all conflicts would benefit from this process – it very much depends where the parties are at – how aligned you feel they are in terms of the outcome they’re seeking, and the capacity on each side for emotional regulation and being open to, at least, see things from an alternate perspective. Handled skillfully, this process can be transformative for tricky relationships, but it takes some time to do the preparatory work and things can go awry if not handled carefully.
- Arbitration Pros: It’s rare that arbitration will be used to deal with internal conflict, but it can happen, for example, between directors of a company. Arbitration can be a faster and cheaper option for businesses than taking matters to court. Plus, it’s a fairly simple process that also guarantees confidentiality.
- Arbitration Cons: However, there are no standards for arbitration. This means you may find the process to be inconsistent, and you could be entrusting someone who isn’t fully equipped to make the best decision for your business.
With this in mind, it’s important you decide in advance what method of conflict resolution seems more appropriate for the situation you’re facing – at least initially. Do involve relevant parties if necessary (such as the key departments and HR), and make a plan to inform everyone involved in the dispute that a particular conflict resolution method has been chosen and will be followed in order to come to an agreement.
4. Prepare for the Conflict Resolution Meeting
Once you’ve done all the groundwork, it’s time to tackle the conflict. First thing first, schedule a meeting with all parties involved and establish some basic rules. If you can, take active steps to make it easier for anyone attending – give them plenty of notice, arrange for a space that’s private, accessible, etc.
Before the meeting, also make sure you prepare and share a clear agenda where you list all the discussion points. This will give people the opportunity to consider any topics in advance and not feel on the back foot when they step into the room. Remember – emotions can run high in conflict situations!
Should you hire a facilitator?
I would also advise you to assign or hire a neutral facilitator ahead of the meeting to help you lead the process. Having someone who is external and impartial can have great advantages in supporting you and other leaders in the organisation in communicating with others in a way that’s efficient and effective, especially in the middle of a dispute or conflict.
When you hire someone like me, for example, you can also be sure you’ll have the backing of a professional with the right skills and experience. I will help you examine and solve the problems at hand, but also avoid a situation where people start finger-pointing and playing the blame game.
Or similarly, give me a shout if you’d like this skillset available to you in-house; I can come and facilitate to move through conflict towards resolution, or I can train some of your staff in how to do it, and support them to feel confident in this valuable skill. –
Sometimes, HR can take the lead in these situations; however, sometimes, this can make people feel stressed or anxious. That’s why having someone impartial who doesn’t know everyone individually can be hugely advantageous.
5. Conduct the conflict resolution meeting
If you hire a facilitator, this step of the process will definitely be less taxing on you. When working with a facilitator, they should arrange a meeting with you to gather all the information they need and your objectives upfront. This is what I do, and I’ll also come back to you if I have any questions. That way, I can prepare an agenda and appropriate questions beforehand. Essentially, I do much of this process for you!
If you’re not hiring someone to help you with this, when it comes to the actual meeting, welcome everyone by setting a positive tone and acknowledging the importance of the issue. You’ll want to reassure all the participants that your goal is to help them get a positive resolution to the situation you’re all facing.
When leading or facilitating the conversation (unless your facilitator is doing this for you), allow all parties to share their perspectives and encourage active listening and respectful communication. During your session, work together to identify solutions and create an action plan you can all follow once you walk away from the room. Give both/all parties ample opportunity to feel they’ve been seen and heard in their experience and to feel clear and in agreement with any outcomes decided upon.
And unless you’ve delegated this to someone else, ensure you document the agreement reached by all parties and commit to following up and monitoring progress after the meeting.
After the conflict resolution meeting
After the meeting, check in with all parties involved to ensure that the resolution you agreed on is being implemented and offer to provide support and resources if necessary. While this may not always be possible, take any possible steps to ensure that a similar situation doesn’t arise again. In fact, aside from following up and monitoring progress (as you committed to doing), you’ll probably want to document any lessons learnt too.
If you want to find out more about the topic of having ‘difficult conversations’ at work, check out the following articles:
How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Employees (with Examples).
How To Find The Right ‘Difficult Conversations’ Training For Leaders And Managers.
Are you looking for conflict management training for the leaders in your organisation?
With the right training and development opportunities, resolving disagreements and conflicts in your team or organisation can become a lot easier. If you or your company would like any conflict management training or simply get some help to facilitate your next conflict resolution meeting or improve communication with your staff, check out my services or drop me a line. I’ll be happy to chat some more!