Insight: Mastering the art of responding to conflict
Have you ever managed conflict between two colleagues?
The tension and friction can be perplexing, and its consequences can ripple through the entire workplace. The truth is many people find themselves uncertain about the best way to respond when confronted with conflict. Even managers, who bear the responsibility of addressing and responding to conflicts between team members, often grapple with their own doubts and uncertainties.
Navigating such delicate situations within a professional setting can present a unique set of challenges. Some individuals may strive to avoid conflict altogether, viewing it as an unwelcome disturbance to harmony. On the other hand, there are people who possess a high tolerance for conflict and might rush headlong into the fray, believing that immediate action is the best course of action.
However, neither extreme approach is necessarily the most effective solution.
In this article I am going to look at four techniques you can use when trying to resolve conflict that are likely to deliver a better experience for everyone involved.
Most workplaces will have a policy or procedure to guide employees throughout this process. So, make sure you find the relevant guidance to underpin your actions. The following techniques are intended to give you greater certainty about how to respond.
Tell someone best placed to respond
If you are not in a role with the responsibility to respond to the conflict, then share your concern appropriately. Do not talk about the conflict amongst peers. Do not take sides. Do not involve yourself without good reason.
Where you can see conflict within your team or organisation, it is important to appropriately share your concerns. This involves telling someone best placed to manage the conflict.
Now, this is different from gossiping about the latest clash between colleagues. Or taking sides. Or dobbing. Or involving yourself without good reason.
Choosing to tell someone like the team leader, manager, Human Resources, or the business owner (depending on the scale of your workplace) is a good place to start.
Once you have shared your concerns about conflict, step back and allow a response. You are unlikely to know exactly what action is taken because the steps needed to respond benefit from being contained to people who need to know, rather than want to know.
If you are tasked to respond to a conflict, here are some tips about what to keep in mind.
First, you must understand how the conflict has occurred.
You may have witnessed the conflict firsthand, or an employee may have raised concerns with you.
Rather than moving straight to fixing the conflict, create an opportunity to understand the perspective of each person involved.
Invite each employee to meet with you individually and talk about the situation.
1. Start by asking them to share their perspective.
2. Make sure you give them time and space to describe the situation in their own words.
3. Avoid jumping in and offering your thoughts.
4. Take notes to ensure you are using the correct phrases to describe the situation.
The purpose of these conversations is to first ensure you have a clear understanding of the situation. Secondly, you want to support each employee by validating their perspective. Thirdly, you can invite each employee to critically reflect about the situation and identify what a resolution will look like.
If you tend to rush, interrupt, or want to rescue, Stop. Listen. Actively listen. Don’t just listen waiting for your turn to speak. Listen. Put a timer on and ask your employee to take 5 minutes to talk in detail about the situation.
Invite them to describe the incident in detail, how they felt before, during and after.
If you have a burning question, make a note of it and when the 5 minutes has passed – ask yourself if the question is still that critical.
It is surprising how quickly 5 minutes can pass.
It is also surprising to observe the impact of holding space and time for someone to reflect on a situation. When you allow someone to speak without interruption, who may find they tell you everything you need to know to move forward.
The power of validating someone through simply listening is a skill I urge you to practice, then practice some more. Mastering active listening is a gift that will keep on giving.
Respond to repair the working relationship
Initially meeting with each person will likely provide you (all) with insight into the root cause of the conflict.
Moving forward may involve co-designing a strategy together to manage further conflict in a more productive way.
Once you have provided an opportunity to both employees, provide an opportunity for the 3 of you to meet and find a way forward to repair the working relationship.
The purpose of the joint meeting is to find enough resolution that the colleagues can continue to work together as required in their roles. It is important to find ways to repair the relationship, rather than superficially responding to a conflict in isolation.
The purpose is not about who is right or wrong, or forcing an apology.
Finding a way forward means setting clear expectations about what is, and what is not, acceptable in the workplace. Conflict is normal, so it is critical that employees have a sound understanding about how to deal with conflict in a professional manner.
Helping each person make meaning and understand the conflict from more than their own perspective can help reduce the impact of disagreements in the future. In a way, it can short circuit the escalation as both people develop a greater understanding about how the conflict unfolded and what the contributing factors were.
Ultimately, effectively responding to conflict involves inviting both people to show greater compassion for others. In turn, this will have a significant and positive impact on team and organisational culture.
Effectively responding to conflict is a learned set of skills.
Ideally, your workplace will have an effective policy or procedure in place that will guide the process you need to follow.
These four techniques are intended to help you be more effective when following your workplace process when next responding to conflict.
If you are currently experiencing challenges in your workplace with conflict and would like support in building your skills to master the art of responding to conflict, book an introductory call with me to explore how we can work together.
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