Conflict management. Ugh. What a daunting, nebulous term. It certainly does not sound fun, or like something anyone in their right mind would want to do. By nature, we are conflict avoidant. We want to keep the peace with others, and often look the other way when we see conflict. The thing is, that once conflict takes root, it’s more emotional than rational, and it can be too late to manage.

In coaching, I often hear managers say that they need help managing conflict. They say things like, “I spend too much of my time putting out fires”, or “It’s like a game of telephone listening to different sides of the story”, or “I feel like a babysitter having to mediate”. Been there? Instead of thinking of it as conflict management, let’s shift our thinking to proactively addressing conflict. Doing this can help diffuse potentially escalating conflicts before they take root, saving time in the long run, resulting in a more engaged team that is more likely to produce better business results.

To proactively address conflict, I recommend a simple process. First, know your audience, then seek to understand them, collaborate on a plan to address it proactively, quantify the pain both parties experience, and follow through in holding each other accountable.

Know your audience

Think back to speech class. This is likely to conger up some painful high school memories, but bear with me. In full disclosure, I was called squeaker in high school for my infamous quivering voice during speeches. The memory still haunts me. I bring this up to drive home an important point. What is the first thing taught in giving a good speech? Know your audience. You have to know your audience to know what you are going to talk about. Otherwise, you risk talking about things the audience does not care about. Same goes for proactively addressing conflict.
Before engaging in a discussion with the conflicting party, pause, and think about their needs. An easy way to do this is to think about the following questions:
What do you know about the audience – what do they need and/or want?
What don’t you know about the audience – what other needs and/or wants may they have?
Of these needs and/or wants, what do you suspect are the top priorities for the audience?
Of those priorities, which ones are you most likely to be able to help address?
A variety of other tools can be involved here – personality assessment information, historical observations of the audience, or insights from others you have gathered. Good leaders ask for input from others when proactively addressing conflict, and they do it in a deliberate, genuine way.

Seek to understand

This week, I led a Leading through Influence learning event. At the beginning of the day, I asked participants to explain what leading through influence meant to them. A brave participant volunteered, and said quietly, but confidently, “seek to understand, before seeking to be understood”. The room was quiet. I paused to let the others digest what had just been said. I commented – “wow, how profound”. The room reacted in laughter, but what he said had really resonated. The theme carried forward throughout the day. As we role played a conflict management scenario, the teams used this trick, many asking open-ended questions before making statements. They sought to understand the other party before being understood themselves. The shift was clear – it created a safe place for both parties to share their perspectives in a calm, cool, collected way.

Once you feel you have gathered enough information about the audience to be dangerous, it’s time to talk. This can be done in a variety of ways – formally scheduling a meeting, talking in passing, or finding a safe, casual place to connect over coffee or lunch. I recommend you choose a time and place that creates a safe environment where trust and transparency is likely to occur. Open the conversation with an open-ended question, something like – “I wanted to get together to talk about something that’s been on my mind. I have given it some thought, and want your input. What do you think about…?” This gets them talking. So, if you have unanswered questions from up above, here’s your chance to get some answers. Then, once you have confirmed some of their needs and/or wants, do a quick playback – “So, what I heard was…is that fair?” – works really well. Now, it’s your turn to share your perspective. Leverage the information you learned in the questions above, and filter appropriately based on what you just heard.

Collaborate on a plan

So, both parties’ needs and priorities are now known. Now, you need to determine what you can best help the other party with. In other words, what’s your “give”? Once you have determined something you are willing to give that the other party cares about, you can ask for your ”take”. This exchange permits a collaborative environment for sharing and finding common goals. Once the exchange and common goals are agreed upon, I strongly encourage documenting it – send an email, take some notes, whatever works for you. That becomes your plan.

Quantify the pain

It’s really easy to just stop there. Both parties air their grievances, and go on their merry way. I have seen this happen before, and most conflict avoidant people just pretend to agree, and then return to conflict in a few weeks again. A really good next step, whether it is in the initial conversation, or in a subsequent one for more challenging conflicts, is to quantify the pain. What I mean by that, is pause to reflect on what would happen if these issues continue. Again, seek to understand first, then to be understood. Your goal here is to get the other party to share their pain points, and only then do you air yours. It is a good idea here to remind each other of the common goals you already agreed to. Let that be your anchor. The beauty of a shared goal, is alignment that naturally prevents future conflicts.

If you have the courage to have the talk, do not forget to ask “what happens if we are not able to resolve this conflict”. It will cement the conversation, and provide insurance to prevent future conflicts. Back to the role play I mentioned earlier, where I saw this done beautifully. Once both parties aired their grievances, the moderator asked them both to think about how they both needed each other to succeed. The shift was transformational. Both parties that had not been making eye contact, all of the sudden looked each other in the eye, and found some common ground. They both were able to admit that they need one another to succeed. This is critical step that most managers forget or do not want to do. Do not make that mistake. It saves time in the long run.

Follow through

In my leadership development learning events, managers often tell me that follow through is one of the biggest challenges. I am always baffled. So, you put out the fire, played the game of telephone, did some adult babysitting, and then just walk away? You invested all that time, and did not follow through. That’s a mystery. Any manager’s time is a significant investment, an expensive one at that. High dollar labor chasing down conflicts is not the best use of that labor. Follow through is simple. Find an agreed upon time to reconvene the parties to debrief and share feedback, put a placeholder on your calendar to remind yourself to ask for the feedback – or, better yet, hold the parties accountable and have them come up with their own follow through plan. Follow through drives accountability. It gets the feedback you need to make sure the plan is right. It prevents conflict from taking root again.
Leaders that invest the time to know their audience, seek to understand, collaborate on a plan, quantify the pain, and follow through have stronger team engagement and better business results.

How can you more proactively address conflicts on your team?

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