This is a guest post by Harry Webne-Behrman. This article is adapted from his recent book, What Matters in This Moment: Leading Groups Through Uncertain Times.
Among the key challenges of leadership – whether in a formal role or as a peer who asserts it – is the skill to intervene in conflicts that occur within our work groups. Conflicts are not merely differences of opinion, but are threats to the needs, interests, and concerns of groups, their members, and the systems in which they are embedded. As such, conflicts offer opportunities for crucial conversations, discussions that can either fracture a group or transform it into something to focus on What Matters in This Moment.
Much of my work over the years has been in helping address workplace conflicts. In This Moment, businesses and community agencies have experienced unprecedented stressors and disruptions: Some have employees working entirely from home, balancing work and family responsibilities in a new light. What had been bustling offices were largely vacated, shifting working relationships and the overhead costs associated with them. Others continued to work together in warehouses, hospitals, grocery stores, and factories, working side-by-side delivering essential goods and services while knowing their own risks were greater because they did so. And then there are many who were laid off, or whose work was otherwise cancelled, so even their definitions of workplace were in flux. And as we return to normal, many continue to feel the impacts of these significant disruptions.
As a result, the reality for many of us has been more highly stressed than usual, experiencing the health, social, and financial consequences of this pandemic. In certain environments, you are also increasingly exhausted, so the reserve capacity to summon the energy required to address conflicts may be tapped out. These factors have combined to test our abilities to deal effectively with one another, so it only makes sense that conflicts will arise.
While we might prefer to avoid such situations and hope they go away, the practical reality is that the consequences of unresolved issues accumulate. Their lack of resolution adds “gunk” to our relationships and processes, so we create work arounds to avoid painful conversations or just do that work ourselves. Recognizing the levels of stress and exhaustion present in our lives, it is important to have approaches that are within our capacities to use them. So here are some simple steps you can take to address conflict effectively, whether over the phone, Zoom, or across a table in a shared space:
A Simple Approach
Step 1: Prepare Yourself to Engage in the Conversation: Paradoxically, this may be an opportunity, so the right mindset is important.
- Take a deep breath and get centered before you attempt to speak with the other person. Prepare yourself to listen fully.
- Notice 1 or 2 “most important things” you want the other person to understand. It won’t help to overwhelm them, and we may not have energy for long discussions.
- You might also remind yourself what might happen if an agreement isn’t negotiated: Sometimes we stay at the table to talk because the alternatives don’t work well.54
Step 2: Seek to Fully Understand and to be Understood: Now we put that preparation into practice, having a conversation where we really try to understand one another’s concerns.
- Patiently demonstrate to the other person that you are ready to listen, and ask for that same commitment in return. Establishing ground rules can be helpful as well, such as “One person will speak at a time, without interruption.”
- Take time to clarify, restate, and summarize what you each hear from one another. It takes a little longer at first, but establishes a good rhythm for listening and talking. After a while, it all becomes more natural as you each feel heard and respected.
- If it gets challenging, take a breath: Clarify further, both what you are saying and what you are understanding from the other person.
Step 3: Identify the Core Issues – What is Really Needed?: A key to negotiating effective agreements is to focus on the key underlying needs, interests and concerns of those involved. What did the previous discussion reveal? What are a couple of core issues that should be addressed today? If all involved can agree on mutual concerns, as well as something that may also matter to one person more than the other, an Agenda can be established that reflects what is really needed. The core issues fall into three categories – Substantive, Procedural, and Relational concerns:
Substantive Concerns refer to the “stuff” of the conflict: What are we fighting for? It may be program priorities, financial commitments, or turf and power.
Procedural Concerns help us understand processes that may be helpful and important: How are we engaged in the conversation? How are decisions made? Who gets to be included, and who is not at the table?
Relational Concerns refer to the psychological dimension of the conflict: Is there a sense of trust, integrity, safety, and respect to the Process through which we address the Substance? How are we addressing the interests of the Relationship?
All too often, people involved in a conflict focus primarily on what they want rather than why they want it. They adopt positions (WHAT/ HOW) that can obscure the underlying interests (WHY) that truly matter. These conversations need to focus on those underlying interests.
Step 4: Patiently Discuss Each Issue, Generating Options and Possible Solutions: Use your skills here to “work the problem.”
- Start with an issue you both agree is important, though not the most challenging issue if possible.
- Take turns offering possible solutions without judgment, and then look at the list and see what might work. Taking each issue in turn, build an agreement.
- If you get stuck, either return to Step 3 or move on for now.
Step 5: Review the Agreement, Agree to “Check in” Again: Review the Agreement that is emerging, and clarify ‘action steps’ now needed to implement it.
- Be clear regarding who is responsible for various actions, including any communication with others not part of this conversation.
- Clarify expectations regarding the time required to take these steps, as well.
- Finally, identify a time to “check in” together to see how things are going.
These steps are easy to follow. If you get stuck, return to an earlier phase of the process, refocus on what is important, and continue the conversation. As needed, take breaks or get some assistance. With some practice, you can follow this process and coach others on your staff to do the same. If you are facilitating a conversation involving two staff members or an upset team, just follow these same steps with them.
Intervene in Groups to Address Conflict Effectively
What do you do when you are in a meeting, and you notice a conflict derailing a group’s ability to work together? How do you intervene effectively? Here are a few strategies to follow:
Start your intervention by expressing your observation as an inference: “Here’s what I’m noticing” invites others into the discussion about what is happening. It is a very different response than, “Stop! Let’s get back to business.” or “Here’s why I think you are behaving this way.”
Model the type of listening you seek from those engaged in the conflict. Be a calm and stable presence in the midst of the storm, respectfully hearing the issues and sorting out the underlying concerns being expressed (Substantive/ Procedural/ Relational), as experienced by the people themselves. Resist urges to make judgments or offer advice. Invite participants to explore questions such as, “What other information might we consider that could be helpful?” or “In what other ways might you draw conclusions from this data?” These types of questions allow people to remain flexible regarding possible conclusions, as well as actions that follow as a result.
Intervene with the lightest touch required in order to be effective. This is not to say, “be nice,” but to be effective in an assertive, yet patient manner. Instead of moving quickly to quash debate or make decisions quickly, slow things down to facilitate opportunities for people to listen to each other fully.
Seek outcomes that are specific, actionable, and practical places to begin healing. This is a start, not likely the final conversation, so explore ways to move forward constructively. Initial agreements may not fully address the concerns being raised, but these actions serve as a floor that prevents further deterioration of relationships within the group.
Allow time for some “cooling off” after the conversation, but then follow-up with those people who are central to the conflict. They may experience a variety of feelings here, including resentment and anger that require further discussion and negotiation. As such, assessing useful next steps with those who remain central to those concerns may be important, even if you are not directly involved.
There is a gentle art to intervention, so allow yourself a learning curve to gain comfort, confidence, and fluency with these approaches. By being fully present, listening deeply, staying calm, and modeling respectful leadership, you provide a service to the group that will be greatly appreciated and valued. It is important to be patient in such matters, as there won’t likely be some “magic moment” where conflict is transformed and peace breaks out. Rather, one might notice a gradual easing of tensions, a willingness to extend cordiality, and some face-saving expressions that begin to turn the tide. Such moments should be noticed and quietly celebrated.
- Where are you challenged when dealing with conflict in your life and work? Take some time to consider how you approach conflict, your ability to be curious about others when there are disagreements, and your flexibility in seeking negotiated solutions.
- What are some of your strengths dealing with conflict? Do you have practices that bring your strengths to the conversation when needed?
- How does stress impact your ability to respond effectively to such conflicts when they arise? How are your strengths either brought to bear or challenged by stress?
- In what ways might this simple approach be useful in virtual or hybrid settings, where we aren’t able to be in the same room together?
About the Author
Harry Webne-Behrman has served as a facilitator, consultant, educator, and mediator for over 40 years. Along with his wife, Lisa Webne-Behrman, he served as Senior Partner of Collaborative Initiative, Inc., a private consulting and mediation firm based in Madison, Wisconsin from 1991-2017, before moving to Ottawa, Canada, where he currently works and teaches. Harry has worked with hundreds of businesses, educational institutions, community groups and public agencies, helping address entrenched organizational and social issues. By consulting with leaders, facilitating large-scale deliberation and engagement processes, mediating interpersonal disputes, and offering educational programs that develop skills needed to address such challenges, Harry has earned a reputation as a valued resource and guide.