Four proven steps to manage conflict…

Wherever there are two or more moving parts, we are bound to experience friction – in our personal and professional lives.

Learning to work with others requires the ability to manage different ideas, personalities, values and cultures.

If there is one area of deep learning over my twenty plus years working in management in corporate, social and professional sporting environments it is in performing teams.

It is both a science and a practice. It takes time and effort. It takes failing – a lot!

As with most things there is no silver bullet. Performing teams is a result of various factors working well.

That said, our ability to manage conflict or dissonance in our relationships is critical.

In our model we believe that good manners is the grease of any organisation and provides a framework for discourse and engagement.

We have also argued, for a long time now, that with serious matters, particularly those pertaining to values and culture, it is the first straw that breaks the camel’s back – not the last.

And as managers, all major breaches must be addressed without delay – for the behaviours we walk past are the behaviours we promote.

So how do we deal with a breach? How do we work through conflict?

Following is a model of conflict resolution that we’ve developed over twenty years of practicing management and we are still refining it based on our real-life learnings. We’d love your feedback and comments so we can continue to do so.

In most instances the primary trigger or issue is an action or series of actions – that over time may even lead to behaviours.

When we act we do so based on our intentions. However, the perceiver of those actions is ignorant of the intent behind them.

Let’s use a work-place example where Jessica does not speak to her colleague Matt for a whole day because she knows that Matt has an important report due to a client by 5pm and does not want him to interrupted him so he can get the report done well and on time. Matt, on the other hand perceives this action by Jessica as her ignoring him – especially at a stressful time where he could use some moral support from his work colleague.

This incident is a typical example of a breakdown in the intent-action-perception chain.

It is easy to see how such a situation can give rise to negative emotions, misunderstanding and even conflict.

In the first instance, there are two key requirements to overcome or avoid the “intent-action-perception” chain breakdown:

The person performing the action has a responsibility to communicate their intent. Secondly, the perceiver has a responsibility to trust. These two obligations are important and must be encouraged in performing teams.

For the only way to know a person’s intent with any certainty is if they communicate them clearly. Conversely, in relationships there is a requirement for some degree of trust.

If at the start of the day Jessica said to Matt, “I’m not ignoring you, I’m just leaving you alone to get that report done,” the misunderstanding could have been avoided. Alternatively, Matt could have responded saying – “thanks but I could use your help with it, if you can spare the time, please.”

On the other hand, Matt must exercise trust with his colleague. He could well justify her actions by saying to himself, “she does not normally ignore me, I trust there is a good reason for it. Perhaps she’s having a bad day!”

But what happens when these two disciplines aren’t enough?

We recommend a second level of actions that have proven to be quite effective post event or in response.

It starts with the person who is aggrieved pursuing what we call ‘empathetic inquiry”.

Rather than Matt being upset, if he engaged with Jessica using ‘empathetic inquiry” he could appreciate her reasons for avoiding him. “Hey Jessica, is everything OK between us – you haven’t spoken to me all day. Or have I done something to upset you?”

Empathetic inquiry seeks first to understand. It requires an open mind and an authentic heart. Rather than make rash judgments it requires a slower and mindful curiosity. It’s one of the most powerful tools in building and maintaining relationships.

But what happens when there is a trust issue? When either there is not enough time spent for two people to gain each other’s trust or when that trust has been broken.

Here, in addition to communication and time, there is an opportunity for vulnerability. Jessica, when confronted by Matt for avoiding him may well admit that “yes, I left you alone to do your report but I need to share with you that I’m quite shy and an introvert and when I’m unsure as I was today, I tend to keep to myself. Next time if you do see me doing this just let me know.”

This is a very brief version of our model and to be effective it requires a far deeper level of mentoring and implementation. It is also requires a certain minimum level of workplace culture and proven commitment to values. Otherwise, it may not work effectively or even be counter productive.

Given that, in our experience it has been a very powerful tool – not just in addressing conflict but in building behavioural systems that optimise performance and strengthens relationships.

Part of our performing teams series