I was talking with my son on the phone about a situation he was facing – a conflict between two members of a group that was affecting the entire group of eight. So, instead of having their regular gathering, the two members plus three from the group gathered to work it out together.
As he described what happened and how they chose to handle it, I realized they were wise about how they approached the situation and resolved it. And it reminded me of some principles of conflict navigation that every team, group and leader should be aware of. I have practiced and taught this for years.
1 – Start Soon: The temptation to avoid conflict often leads to not facing it at all. People put it off so long they figure, “That’s water under the bridge, now. Let’s just move on.” Or they think, “Maybe it will fix itself.” I guarantee that never happens. Don’t let things go on so long that deep-seated feelings and anger start boiling under the lid. The next time there is a disagreement among members this pot is going to blow! You don’t have to act immediately; let emotions calm down, get a clear head, clarify what you want to say, and then in 24-48 hours deal with it.
2- Meet Face to Face: Not email, not texting, not writing a long heart-felt letter. The impersonal approach makes it difficult to have a conversation, read feelings, respond “in the moment” and intercept misperceptions before a long trail of emails or texts gets established. Have a cup of coffee and work it out.
3- Affirm the Relationship: Be genuine and let the other party (or parties) know that you are there for them, you want to restore health to the relationship or team, and that you value them. Name some positive contributions or attitudes you see, and remind them that “You matter to us/me and that is why we need to meet and remove this barrier to our friendship/work.” This let’s them know you really want to work this out and move on. You are not finger-pointing just to “win” or be “right” – rather, you want restoration.
4- Make Observations not Accusations: Avoid “you” language and use “I” language. “You are a liar” is just going to add fuel to the fire. Better to say, “Twice I heard you say that you would make that phone call Tuesday, and now it is Thursday and the client is frustrated. I am concerned about that relationship.” OR, “Yesterday when you and I were arguing I felt attacked for my opinion. I heard you say some very harsh words and it hurt me. We need to talk this through.” Stick with, “I saw, I heard, I felt” language and then let them respond.
5- Get the Facts and Listen: Once you have taken a minute or two to make your comments, listen and ask, “Do you understand what I saw/felt/heard and why that is causing a problem?” Make sure you hear their words as well as their emotions. Clarify, repeat what they are saying to show you are listening, and make an effort to show you understand their side. (Same thing if you are the third party – make sure to two people in conflict have heard each other by making them say what they heard. DO NOT assume they listened, and do not simply ask for a yes-or-no response to the question, “Did you hear what Susan was saying?”
6- Promote Resolution: “Ok, so where do we go from here? Let’s find a way we can move forward. What do you need to take place? Here is what I need.” It may take some time to fully restore a relationship, especially if the conflict was bad and harsh things were don or said. But at least you can get the “issue” resolved, agree to move ahead, and determine a plan for continuing to process the damage, as needed. Avoid the extremes of dragging it out or trying to “clean it all up” in a hurry just because it is painful. You will regret wither approach. Stay in the process and move toward resolution.
Some good resources to use are:
Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott – http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_10?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=fierce+conversations&sprefix=fierce+con%2Caps%2C189
Caring Enough to Confront, by David Augsburger