Effective leaders must be skilled or at least comfortable with conflict and conflict resolution. Leadership is about optimizing interpersonal relationships towards a desired goal – where there are interpersonal relationships there will be conflict to varying degrees.
Some leaders are uncomfortable dealing with conflict. Common sources for the discomfort trace to their own relationship with conflict, from their upbringing, from the fear of dealing with strong emotions or from their lack of skills or process to deal with it. The following will touch on emotions, skills and process. Separately, leaders could benefit from reflecting on the roots of their own relationship with conflict and how it was viewed/dealt with in their history.
Definition of Conflict Resolution
Conflict can be defined simply as a disagreement between people. Although that feels too simplistic, it is usually a serious disagreement or argument, often a protracted one. Sources of conflict are almost as numerous as humans such as, poor performance, bullying, harassment, discrimination, inappropriate language, differences in opinion or personality, office etiquette, laziness, ego, taking credit for others’ work, jealousy, personal idiosyncrasies, rudeness, misunderstandings, and assumptions.
Language is powerful. The words we use to ‘label’ situations can influence our feelings about them and hence our approach. Conflict should be reserved for serious disagreement. The language of disagreement, clash, misunderstanding and difference can de-escalate situations and bring more conciliatory perspectives to the resolution.
A Conflict Resolution Strategy: Prevention
One opportunity is to prevent conflict in the first place. When I start coaching a group of clients we ‘contract’ for how we want to work together; we ‘design our alliance’ for working together (download template here). It means we talk about what the ground rules are for behaving, what’s acceptable and what’s not, what brings out the best in each of us, and how we want to handle conflict should it arise. This makes it easier if things do arise to deal with them as we’ve already talked about how we want to handle it, we all have permission for how to address it. Lead and encourage these types of discussions early and often, do check ins, this helps identify potential issues, so you can deal with them early.
A distinction I want to make is that some differences that people label as ‘conflict’ is not negative or something to be avoided. Conflict in terms of differing opinions and diverse points of view should in fact be encouraged. Differences and healthy debate of thoughts and ideas about the work leads to better solutions.
5 Conflict Resolution Skills
- Listening – practice active listening which is engaged listening to understand rather than to respond. Listen to what’s said and what’s not said, listen with your ears, eyes and gut for a sense of what might be happening beyond the words.
- Curiosity – be curious about people, their thoughts, feelings, motivations, fears and needs. Observe peoples’ behaviours with you and in relation to others. Have your ear to the ground for potential poor performers or reactive individuals – talk to them before anything official is raised to understand what’s happening, give feedback if relevant and to focus them on their impact.
- Alignment vs agreement – when you don’t agree with someone try to find something within their perspective with which you can align. This allows you to find or create a different solution together. Agreement is polarizing and can close options or result in people disengaging. For example, two people of different religions can find alignment about believing in a higher power and faith whereas they probably don’t agree on the practices or doctrine.
- Yes, and – this is a term used in improvisational comedy. The concept is to find something in what someone has said that you agree with or appreciate and then build on it. It’s often used in brainstorming circles so that no idea is judged as bad. In the workplace, it creates an expectation of finding good things in each other’s ideas and weaves people’s ideas together which is a more collaborative approach.
- Emotional literacy – good leaders are typically literate in language and numeracy as they are taught in school. Another type of literacy that is necessary is emotional, especially where conflict is involved. Conflict involves emotion. Learn the language and definitions of key emotions, especially those that cause discomfort in the workplace such as anger, sadness, frustration, grief, shame, fear and disgust to name a few.
How to Resolve Conflict
It’s difficult to provide one process for resolving conflict as it depends on the number of people involved, the type of conflict and the seriousness of the situation. Here is a simple process. The leader’s role is usually to facilitate finding an acceptable solution to both parties (assuming it’s not a case of legality)., it isn’t to be a judge of who’s right and who’s wrong.
- Acknowledge that the conflict is present. Name the elephant in the room to yourself and those involved.
- Listen to each side, potentially separately depending on the issue. Ideally, if possible, try to have both parties present to share their thoughts and feelings. Have the parties sit beside each other, not across from each other in adversarial positions.
- Dig beneath the surface to identify the underlying needs or motivations of each party.
- Encourage each of them to find alignment between the two of them. What can they agree on? It might be as basic as them agreeing what the problem is between them, or what the worst-case scenario is or what process they wish to follow to find a resolution.
- Brainstorm options or solutions together that would satisfy each of their needs.
- Agree among themselves how they want to proceed. What ideas do they want to try, how do they want to interact in a way that they both agree. Ensure each party verbally agrees to their actions, to the joint solution. Silence is not acceptance.
- Monitor how it’s going. Have check-ins together. You could ask each of them to rate the effectiveness of the solution on a scale of 1 to 10. What would it take to increase the rating (if it’s not a 10)? Have them share ideas and their feelings.
- Determine for yourself what you will do if it doesn’t improve. Will you hire a relationship coach or a mediator? What impact is it having on the broader team? Would this become a performance issue necessitating formal procedures?
Remember healthy diverse thinking and constructive conflict resolution can often lead to better outcomes and a rich opportunity for learning and growth, for individuals and the organization.
What conflict resolution would be beneficial to work through to improve your leadership?
Book a complimentary coaching session with me here to explore how you could be better at managing conflict.
Conflict Resolution Resource
The following resource is more in-depth about conflict resolution. It supplies further links for specific situations such as bullying, harassment, stress and performance management. It’s done by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development charity.