Helping others to resolve conflict
Managers often say to me that they wonder what they would do with the extra time if they didn’t have to deal with difficulties between team members:
- Those who are upset or offended but refuse to raise the issue with the person concerned
- Team members who are not working together well
- Those who are in outright conflict whose behaviour is affecting the team in general
Now while there is a time to simply get over upsets with others or encourage people to speak directly with the person concerned, there are also times to bring the parties together to resolve their difficulties and develop an easier working relationship.
Such meetings range from informal ‘work-it-out’ meetings, often facilitated by a supervisor or Human Resources Officer, to formal mediation sessions run by an external professional.
Most people don’t find conflict easy. They would prefer to avoid it wherever possible. So bringing people together for such meetings may not come easy. But the longer a conflict continues, the worse it tends to become. So, the sooner you resolve the difficulties, the better.
Here are some general principles you can use that apply to all meetings convened to assist people with conflict:
- Be supportive and professional: It is important that you are non-biased, non-judgemental, and supportive. You guide the process, not the content, so do not make decisions on the parties’ behalf, unless you have been asked to arbitrate. Avoid the temptation to take sides, despite any personal feelings you may have. It is important that you are seen to be neutral. This is why supervisors who may have a closer relationship with one party are often not the best person to mediate a conflict between team members.
Meet with the parties separately beforehand, if possible: This gives you an opportunity to: build a relationship with that person if you haven’t already done so, explain your role in the joint meeting, allow them to voice their perspective and any negative emotions beforehand, and, if they are open to your influence, for you to coach them on what they can do to build some goodwill and resolve the conflict.
- Create a positive atmosphere: Here the positive relationship you have already developed with each party will be helpful. Choose a neutral venue, which does not create a power advantage for one party. Arrange seating where the parties sit diagonally opposite each other, rather than directly opposite, around a circular table, if possible. The presence of refreshments can also facilitate a more relaxed atmosphere and less formal interactions. Your demeanour of friendliness, confidence and professionalism will be essential in setting the tone for the meeting.
Congratulate the parties on any positive steps already taken, such as recent improvements, their past positive history, or that they have simply turned up to this meeting.
Be clear with both parties that your role is to help them to get a good outcome, not to provide them with solutions. They will need to work hard to find workable solutions. Explain that your role is to guide the process and keep them on track, so the conflict does not get out of control.
You can help to inspire confidence in you by being competent and professional, clear as to the agenda, how the meeting will be run, reminding people about any ground rules for the meeting (such as no interrupting, keeping it respectful, looking for solutions for the future, rather than dwelling on blame or personal attacks, etc).
- Speak about their common desire to achieve a good outcome: Ideally, this is best expressed by the individuals themselves by asking them directly, “Why do you want this difficulty / conflict solved?” If they have difficulty expressing this reason, they may need some prompting or you can assume the best – that they have a desire to get their relationship back on track, to get a fair outcome, or agree on the way forward.
Speak also about other reasons they want to resolve their dispute, some they may have in common, such as, (for team members) their need to have an easier working relationship or (for separated parents) their shared concern for their children.
- Encourage gestures of goodwill: Hopefully, people will be open to any coaching you have given them beforehand on how to do so and come to the meeting with a positive frame of mind.
Goodwill can be demonstrated by words and actions, such as when people greet each other pleasantly, agree where possible, and demonstrate flexibility.
One or both parties may be in a position where they can apologise for their part, for how their behaviour came across, or expressing a hope that they can put their difficulties behind them for the sake of their relationship. Conciliatory behaviour, such as making amends or choosing to forgive or let go of hurt, are all very helpful gestures that can be encouraged beforehand.
Of course, such gestures do not always elicit an immediate positive response. So, it is important that people are prepared to take helpful actions, but do not expect others to immediately reciprocate.
- Interrupt problem patterns of communication: When separate meetings beforehand are not possible, structure the joint meeting so that each party can share, without interruption, their perspective, concerns, and wishes for the future. It can be helpful if the other party is willing to acknowledge what they have heard and ask clarifying questions if needed.
You will need to be prepared, at times, to interrupt disrespectful, problematic communication when it takes place - reminding people of the ground rules for their meetings, redirecting personal attacks to the issue at hand, reframing complaints to what that person would find helpful, naming the behaviour, changing seating arrangements or the physical location, or separating the parties.
Sometimes people are simply not ready to solve a conflict or they are too heated or emotional. In such situations, consider rescheduling the meeting for a time when both can think more clearly.
- Guide the process: Make sure you have a plan for how the meeting will be run, but be flexible when needed. Guide the conversation towards a joint problem-solving approach – where the issues are agreed and prioritised, there is joint problem-solving, and where outcomes are achieved where each party’s needs and concerns are taken into account. It is important that the real source of the tension is identified as parties can often argue over different matters.
Many facilitators or mediators often map the conflict using a format similar to the following:
Person A: Person B:
Their needs: Their needs:
Their concerns: Their concerns:
Solutions respectful of both parties’ positions:
Agreements are written down, sometimes witnessed by both parties, and a timeframe made for review. It is important to set realistic expectations – that their plan may not work perfectly – but any challenges that arise will help to fine-tune their plan.
At the conclusion of the meeting, remember to congratulate them that they have chosen to work at resolving the issue, rather than continue the conflict. Things do not always go smoothly, of course. So, we need to be flexible enough to use a variety of strategies that are best suited for the situation.