In team dynamics, conflicts often arise from differences in opinions or approaches. A classic example is when two team members have valid but distinct solutions to a problem, leading to an argument. The challenge intensifies when one individual refuses to acknowledge the other's perspective, adamant in proving their correctness. This situation not only impedes problem-solving but also strains team relationships.
So what can be done about it? Ideally we can implement tactics to ensure situations like this are few and far between, however with the best will in the world, it is inevitable that conflict between colleagues will happen from time to time. I have assembled a few tactics for how we can manage the conflict and reduce the likelihood of it happening again.
Lets set the scene, In a marketing firm, two employees, Sarah and John, disagreed over the direction of a key advertising campaign. Sarah, a seasoned marketer, believed in a traditional approach, focusing on print media. John, newer to the team, argued for a digital-first strategy, emphasising social media engagement. Their disagreement escalated during a team meeting, with both firmly entrenched in their perspectives, leading to a tense atmosphere and stalled progress on the project. The team members noticed the growing rift but did nothing to prevent the situation escalating. Both Sarah and John left the meeting and were both visibly upset and angry with each other. At this point, management were not aware and had not acted.
Sam (The Team leader) had been told about the matter shortly after the meeting and knew she needed to check in with both of her team members and have a difficult conversation but was not sure where to start! Sound familiar?
Now we have set the scene, put yourself in Sam's shoes for a moment as we explore ways in which we can successfully manage this situation.
Before the difficult conversation
It’s often a good idea to check in on both individuals quickly after the incident but note that emotions are very high and it can be tricky to seek any form of resolution while everyone is in a fragile headspace. Consider a quick check in and say you will be back shortly to have a proper check in.
When you do set up for the proper check in, make sure you seek the perspectives of both parties individually in the first instance. Gain understanding on what they perceive the problem to be, how it is impacting them and what they would like you to do moving forward. You can use the first part of my PUB IS R&R performance management template below to help with this.
P – Problem:
Find out exactly what the problem is from the individuals perspective.
U – Underlying reasons:
Are there any underlying reasons that have contributed towards the individuals behaviour or performance? Eg, Financial problems at home, Stress in work, Unwell relatives etc.
B – Behaviour:
How has the individual been affected? How are they feeling? Is this normal behaviour for them? Is this affecting others in the team?
I – Improvement:
How do they see this getting better? How would they like you to support them? What does a solution look like to them?
S- Set a review date:
Where appropriate, agree a time and a place to bring both parties together to have the discussion. This might be the same day, or a day or two later once everyone has had a chance to decompress from the situation. Don’t leave it any longer though as tension and anxiety tends to build-up and matter may get worse the longer this is left unmanaged.
Self-Reflection: Encourage each individual to reflect on their own viewpoint and the reasons behind their stance. This introspection can help in identifying biases and preparing them for a more open discussion.
Perspective Writing: Have each party write down their understanding of the other's position. This exercise fosters empathy and prepares each individual to listen more effectively.
During the difficult conversation
Next steps are to bring the two parties together in an appropriate environment that everyone feels comfortable in for a mediated discussion.
When holding the conversation, use the PUB IS R&R framework (see image below) to provide structure to your discussion. Much like your informal check in earlier, you will need the “PUB IS” part of the framework for this bit. It’s worth making some notes from the conversations you have already had before you meet to ensure you remain on topic and understand everyone’s perspectives.
Visit www.jamescoomber.com to download your free toolkit to assist with this.
Establishing ground rules at the beginning of a difficult conversation is crucial to ensure that the dialogue is productive and respectful. Here's a suggested list of ground rules that can be applied:
Mutual Respect: Both parties agree to treat each other with respect, regardless of their differing viewpoints.
No Interruptions: Each person will be given the opportunity to speak without interruptions. This ensures that everyone feels heard and valued.
Use "I" Statements: Encourage the use of "I" statements (e.g., "I feel," "I think") rather than "you" statements, which can come across as accusatory.
Stay on Topic: Focus on the issue at hand and avoid bringing up past conflicts or unrelated matters.
Empathetic listening: Both parties should practice listening with the intent of seeking understanding, which involves paying full attention, not planning a response while the other is speaking, and reflecting back what was heard for clarity.
No Personal Attacks: Discussions should remain issue-focused and should not include personal attacks, name-calling, or demeaning language. If this does happen, as a mediator you must intervene immediately.
Confidentiality: If appropriate, agree that the details of the discussion will remain confidential, especially if sensitive information is shared.
Agree to Disagree: Recognise that it's okay to disagree and that not all conflicts will end with complete agreement. The goal is mutual understanding, not necessarily consensus.
Seek to Understand, Then to be Understood: Make an effort to understand the other person’s perspective before trying to get your point across.
Positive Attitude: Approach the conversation with a willingness to resolve the issue and a positive outlook towards finding a solution. It’s often a good idea to lay out the goal of the conversation right at the start.
Time Limits: If needed, set time limits for each person’s contributions to keep the conversation balanced and focused.
Right to Pass: Anyone can choose not to answer a question or to pass on responding at a particular moment if they feel uncomfortable.
Agree on Next Steps: End the conversation with a clear agreement on what the next steps will be, whether it's a follow-up meeting, Exercises to complete, or a plan to check in on progress.
Breaks if Needed: Agree that if emotions become too heightened, either party can request a short break to cool down before continuing the discussion. It is pointless trying to discuss matters when emotions are high.
Establishing these ground rules can create an environment that promotes a productive, respectful, and constructive conversation, even when the topics are challenging, and emotions are high. It's important to communicate these rules clearly at the start and to ensure that both parties agree to abide by them. This sets a tone of collaboration and mutual respect, which is essential for navigating through conflict effectively.
With the PUB IS R&R framework by your side, some notes from your individual discussions and the ground rules in place you are ready to lead the discussion. While facilitating the discussion, display empathetic listening and allow people time to speak. Listen with the conscious view of seeking understanding not with the view of answering.
Where possible, try to find common ground between the two parties. This could be shared goals, values, objectives or even mutual respect for one another.
Finally, keep focused on the issue, not the person. Frame the conversation around the problem at hand, not the individuals involved. This helps in depersonalising the conflict and keeping the discussion objective.
Once you move onto the “Improvement” part of the framework, seek their ideas on how to make the situation better first. Offer your advice last. You might be surprised at how little input you need to offer at this point.
During the discussion activities
Role Reversal: Temporarily have each individual present from the other’s perspective. This can be a powerful tool for building empathy and understanding. If you employed the perspective writing exercise before the discussion, ask them to share their thoughts from their notes.
Joint Problem-Solving: Focus the conversation on finding a common solution, rather than debating who is right or wrong. Ask questions like “How can we make this better?” or “What positive actions could you take to improve this situation?”
After the difficult conversation
This is where you need to follow the “R&R” part of the framework. “Record and Review” the conversation you have had. In most cases the techniques adopted in this post will have helped resolve the matter. This is where it’s important to do the following:
Acknowledgment and Apologies: This is part of “Recording” the conversation. Let everyone know you are grateful for their participation in the meeting and outline the areas covered along with agreed actions moving forward. This is also a good time to acknowledge any apologies delivered to one another in the discussion.
Review and Check-in: Establish regular check-ins to monitor the progress of the resolution and address any lingering issues. Put reminders in your calendar so you don’t forget!
Team-Building Activities: Consider engaging in team-building exercises to strengthen the bonds between team members and improve communication and culture on the team.
Feedback Session: After the discussion, engage in a feedback session where both parties express how they felt during the conversation and what they learned.
Action Plan Development: As discussed in the “Improvement” part of the discussion, work together to develop a plan of action based on the insights gained from the discussion. This reinforces collaboration and joint ownership of the solution.
Self-reflection: Reflect back on how the conversation went and what points you can learn from in case you need to have a difficult conversation again.
If the conversation does not go as planned, it’s essential to not give up all hope! Seek further advice and support from an expert mediator.
Preventing Future Conflicts
Regular Training: Invest in regular training sessions for the team on communication strategies, building trust in teams and emotional intelligence.
Culture of Openness: Foster a team culture that values open communication, respect for diverse opinions, and constructive feedback, AKA Psychological safety.
In conclusion, while challenging, difficult conversations with stubborn team members can be navigated successfully by incorporating empathy, understanding, and effective communication strategies. By engaging in practical exercises before, during, and after discussions, teams can not only resolve conflicts but also build a stronger foundation of trust and collaboration. Let's embrace these opportunities for growth, create an environment where diverse viewpoints are not just heard but valued. Remember, the goal is not to avoid conflict but to learn how to engage with it constructively for the betterment of the team and individual growth.