Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

Resolving a conflict between two people

There are two aspects to this. First, you need to establish if there actually is a conflict between the parties, which you do by exploring their perceptions of the events that have taken place. Once you’ve done this, the next step is to gain the parties’ agreement to come around the table in a facilitated meeting to resolve their key issues.

You could also use this process to address issues relating to disruptive behaviour during meetings by two of your team, where this approach will help to nip any disagreement in the bud and prevent it escalating in the future.

Testing your assumptions

So, let’s assume that over the past three months you’ve noticed tensions between Fred and Ken. You’ve observed Fred raising his voice at Ken in recent team meetings and making threats about his job security in front of team members. You’ve also noticed out of the last two team meetings, Ken has been late for one and emailed in sick for the other.

How could you check out what’s happening with Ken and Fred?

The intention here is twofold: firstly, to raise Fred’s awareness of his behaviour, and secondly, to explore whether this has developed into a conflict that needs to be addressed.

Observations

You need to share your observations, not your judgements; so stick to behaviours (things you can see and hear) – be specific.

You approach Fred and share your observations.

‘Fred, over the past three months, I’ve noticed during team meetings that you raised your voice to the point of shouting at Ken. I didn’t notice you do this with anyone else. On two occasions, I also heard you say to Ken “If you don’t pick your socks up young man, you’ll be looking for another job” and this sounded to me like you were making threats to Ken’s job security in front of the team.’

Inquiry

Check with Fred to see whether he is aware of his behaviour or not, and explore with him the intention behind his behaviour. Why would you check the intention behind his behaviour? Well, you might discover that Fred’s intention has been to motivate and inspire Ken. While his intention seems positive, this doesn’t sanitise his behaviour. You might also discover that Fred is feeling under intense pressure and doesn’t feel supported by the rest of the team, in which case you might very well prevent a member of staff burning out. Remember, feelings are a manifestation of needs either being met or not (see Why conflicts are so difficult to resolve).

You – ‘I wanted to share this with you and I wondered whether you were aware of it.’

Fred – ‘No, I wasn’t.’

You – ‘Do you recall the specific examples I’ve just given?’

Fred – ‘Well, sort of...’

You – ‘Could you help me understand what was going through your mind at that point? When you said what you said, what were your concerns?’

Fred – ‘Ken’s last three reports have been full of mistakes and I’ve had to practically redo them before getting them off to the client. I’m up to my eyeballs in work at the moment and I don’t have the time to do this, but this client is fastidious about the quality of the reports and I want to deliver the best. We just can’t afford to lose them over silly little mistakes like these.’

Empathy

Acknowledge the intention behind Fred’s behaviour by giving him empathy.

You – ‘So it sounds like you’re feeling under pressure at the moment meeting the demands of your own workload and when you have to deal with additional pieces of work and need to rely on others to do those pieces for you, it just adds to that pressure. I can see it’s important for you to maintain your reputation with this client and appreciate you want to make sure that we keep their business. You want to be sure that you’ve got competent staff supporting you. Is that right?’

Fred – ‘You bet!’

Perceptions

Invite Fred to join Ken’s world and step into his shoes. How does he think Ken would feel to be on the receiving end of that tone and those comments? Would it appear to Ken that Fred’s intention is to motivate and inspire? You might discover at this stage that Fred is horrified that his behaviour might be perceived in this way, in which case you have potentially avoided a conflict from escalating.

You – ‘I’m just wondering how much of this Ken is aware of and if you were Ken how you’d be feeling being on the receiving end of your comments?’

Fred – ‘Well he should know all this. I keep pointing it out to him time and time again. But he doesn’t seem to take a blind bit of notice of what I’m saying!’

You – ‘So what might be going through his mind when you make comment like [XXX]? What would you be thinking if you were him?’

Concerns

At this stage, despite what has been said, it is important that you share your concerns. You are concerned about the impact Fred’s behaviour has had on Ken and you are concerned about the future of the team, Ken’s welfare and indeed Fred’s welfare.

You – ‘Fred, I’m raising this with you because I’m concerned that if this continues, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to function at your best with this increased stress and workload. I’m also concerned that Ken might feel equally under pressure, knowing that he’s not meeting the high standards that you expect. I’m worried that the pressure you both sound under, coupled with how Ken could be feeling as a result of some of the things you’ve said to him, might affect your relationship and someone could end up getting hurt.’

Fred – ‘I don’t know why you’re raising this with me; Ken’s the one you need to be speaking to.’ [Fred has just played his defensive card, so you’ll need to give him some empathy first, before moving on.]

You – ‘I guess it must be difficult to hear that your behaviour might be coming across differently to how you yourself perceive it to be. I do intend to have a similar conversation with Ken; I just wanted to check things out with you first, in case I was way off with my observations.’

Testing your assumptions early on in this way can sometimes be the best way to avoid a disaster. In fact, you might well find Fred taking the initiative and clearing the air between them without any need for further intervention. It’s crucial that your approach remains free from any blame or judgement, so be aware of the language you’re using when sharing observations and stick to what you saw and heard.

If you’ve established there is a conflict between the parties, you’ll need to check their willingness to engage in a joint meeting to resolve the issues. Win-win approaches, such as mediation, are successful because both parties consent to the process. This is a fundamental part of your process.

Separate meetings

Meet separately with them to declare your interest and set the scene.

You – ‘As you know, I want to meet with you and Jo to see if you can both find a way of resolving the conflict that exists between you. I want to use this meeting to talk with you privately and find out how you see the situation, how you feel about what’s been happening and how you’d like to move forward with it. This is a confidential discussion; I’ll be doing the same with Jo.’

Use this as an opportunity to get some background on their relationship, any tensions between them and any events leading up to that meeting. Listen out for

  • Facts
  • Feelings
  • Needs and interests
  • Outcomes.

Once you’ve met with them both separately and they’ve agreed to a joint meeting facilitated by you, you can then make arrangements for a suitable venue, one in which privacy and confidentiality can be maintained.

Joint meeting

The idea of the joint meeting is to enable the parties to talk directly to each other in a safe environment where they both get an opportunity to talk about what’s happened, vent their frustrations and try and see the problem from each other’s perspective. The meeting is also used to explore possible solutions to their problems and reach a joint agreement on how to move forward, all this under the watchful eye of a skilled facilitator. The facilitator will bring a structure and control to the process while the parties themselves remain in control of the outcome.

Checklist

  • Location – this should be a neutral venue, with privacy (in other words, not in a glass-fronted meeting room for the rest of the office to see).
  • Time – ensure you and both parties have blocked out sufficient time so that you’re not disturbed.
  • Refreshments – make sure there is a plentiful supply of water.

Joint meeting – format

It’s important to follow a clear format.

1. Welcome and words of encouragement

Remember, the parties probably feel way outside their comfort zones, so thank them for having the courage to address their difficulties this way.

2. Format

Explain the format and your desired outcome; manage their expectations so they know what they can expect and what they should be aiming for.

3. Confidentiality

One of the reasons that mediation and other informal processes can be so successful is because everything discussed in these meetings remains confidential. Parties can then feel free to be open and candid in the knowledge that anything said will not travel outside the four walls.

4. Ground rules

These are essential to give you, as facilitator, the best chance of reaching an outcome without the process being sabotaged by unreasonable behaviour. Mention the rules, which should include

  • One party to speak at a time
  • Avoid blaming each other and focus on interests. (You may need to explain the difference between a position and interests)
  • If either party feel they need to take a break at any point, there should be a mechanism so that they can call a pause to the process without feeling uncomfortable about doing so.

5. Their stories

This is very similar to the process you would use if you were resolving a conflict your self. Encourage the parties to talk about

  • Their observations
  • Their feelings
  • The impact
  • Their desired outcome.

6. Explore interests

This is the chance for you to begin to find out what interests underlie their positions, so when you hear blame-orientated statements, try and uncover the things that are really important to them.

7. Solutions

Once the parties have acknowledged a shared understanding of each other’s interests, now is the time to move in to generate ideas and solutions that meet their interests and needs. Begin with a brainstorming exercise and include every idea and solution, irrespective of whether you feel it is sensible or not. Once you’ve produced an exhaustive list, go through each one, evaluating the workability of each solution.

8. The agreement

Key point

Put the responsibility to cement their agreement on the parties – it’s their job, not yours.

When the parties have reached a workable agreement on how they intend to move forward, it’s up to them how they would like their agreement endorsed. Some choose to put something confidential in writing as a simple declaration of intent (not legally binding); others choose to shake hands and schedule regular three-way meetings with the facilitator to ensure the agreement sticks. There are no hard-and-fast rules.

9. Wrap up

Congratulate both parties on their courage and willingness and celebrate the progress they have made in the course of the meeting (irrespective of the outcome – the fact they’ve come to the table in the first place is an achievement in itself).

This is a typical format for mediation, but unless you have received professional training as a mediator, I would recommend that you use someone who has been professionally trained. You might have someone in HR who is trained and capable of doing it, otherwise look for an external provider to run the session.

Also see the topic on Mediation.