Conflict raises our blood pressure, gets our pulse racing and brings us out in a cold sweat. Yet conflict is a natural part of life and going through it part of building a strong and effective team. Sadly we often work in organisations which deal with conflict like immature children yet …
‘THE key skill of effective leaders … is the capacity to skilfully address emotionally and politically risky issues.’ (Crucial Conversations 2012)
So what are your options? Avoid the conversation… handle it badly … or approach it skilfully. Here are seven steps that might help you develop this essential leadership skill.
Ask yourself…what am I feeling, thinking and doing?
Perhaps you are anxious, uptight, with a knot in your stomach. Maybe you are raging inside and next time you see your protagonist, I mean colleague, you are going to give them a piece of your mind? Perhaps you are convincing yourself that the situation might just get better all by itself so why risk making things worse. Then again you may have concluded that they are incapable of change so you are scanning the new job adverts. If you want to check your conflict handing behaviour you could complete a Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Questionnaire.
It’s also worth considering …. what have I done to contribute to this situation? Have I been gossiping to colleagues to vent my frustration and justify myself? … Check your heart attitude.
2.Clarify your purpose.
Ask yourself… what would I like to achieve?
Be clear about what you want and what you don’t want. What would be your ideal outcome? What benefits could there be if you could find a healthy solution? What might be common purposes that you both share? Begin to consider the other person and think about what they might need, and how they might feel.
3.Open a conversation.
This is often the most challenging step. How to begin it well. The key here is your attitude. Is it genuinely respectful, and courteous? Honour them, you are not trying to win or punish or point score rather it’s about looking for a creative solution. Share very briefly the issue or why you want to have this conversation and offer reassurance about higher purposes especially about wanting to find a positive way forward and working well together. Affirm how important the relationship is to you.
‘I wonder if we might discuss ___________ I want to understand your perspective.’
‘Could we talk about __________ I really would love to find a creative way forward that works for both of us.’
‘I would really like us to work well together so perhaps we could talk about _______ ’
4.Listen without defending yourself.
Ask for their perspective and what matters most to them. As Stephen Covey says ‘seek first to understand then to be understood’ (7 Habits of Highly Effective People 2012). So go on give them a right good listening to. (See my blog ‘Good listening will make you a more effective Leader’ June 2016 for some tips). They may accuse, attack or criticise you, so this is when you need to exercise great self-control and choose not to defend yourself. Simply listen and clarify their needs and interests. Seek to learn what matters to them.
As Eric Berne suggests approach the situation as a ‘Thinking Martian’ setting aside your preconceptions, assumptions or judgments about their possible motives. Tune into their story and summarise this back to them so that it’s very clear to both of you.
Try to use supportive language such as ‘I understand more now.’ Or ‘you’ve explained this clearly, thank you.’ and acknowledge their opinions, perspective and what they want.
5.Share your perspective gently.
Gently share what you notice, be specific, focus on behaviours and facts then explain the impact this is having on you. Begin your sentences with ‘I… ‘ rather than ‘you…’ and try not to start your sentences with ‘But or However or You…. ‘. Express in as calm a way as possible what’s important to you and what you would like to have happen. Be humble enough to apologise it’s a very powerful bridge builder. Even if you are struggling you might apologise for the situation developing to this stage and not having the courage to speak to them sooner. However any apology must be genuine and may not be reciprocated.
6.Invite them to offer solutions.
This is the wondering phase. ‘I wonder if you can suggest some ways forward.’ Conflict isn’t always bad, in fact it may be healthy, it can stimulate innovation, and bring change for the better. Inviting them to share in the solution is less threatening and often brings out new ideas.
7.Build a new way forward.
Look for areas of common purpose or interest that you can build on. Restate what you both agree about and affirm how much you value the other person. Recap on what you have agreed on and putting it in writing can be helpful so that you know the ... who? …does what? …by when? and consider how you might review your progress.
Stephen Hibbard is Director of Hibbards Coaching and Mediation a company committed to enabling you to transition from conflict towards healthy working relationships.