Conflict Resolution Strategies
Source: OfficePro magazine, August/September 2003
BY PEGGY L. MCNAMARA
Today, more than ever, businesses are juggling demands on their people, time, and resources. Combine close working quarters with the innumerable tricky situations that arise every single day and conflict is bound to appear.
Conflicting values and points of views within your teams are common. Sometimes people who work together may have varying expectations of themselves, those around them, and the workplace as a whole. The problem is that conflict is and can be toxic to an effective workplace environment.
Three general understandings about conflict resolution are:
It takes willing participants. To get an issue resolved, the people involved have to have a desire to do just that. Without it, very little can be done.
Not all conflict can be resolved. Sometimes, regardless of what steps you take, issues don't get settled, for whatever reasons. Only you can judge when you have tried all routes and need to move on.
Conflict is good. Conflict can be an incredible opportunity for personal growth, organizational improvement, and advancement. That doesn't mean that you go looking for it; it simply means that when it is upon you, embrace it as something positive.
Try these strategies for preventing and resolving conflict situations:
1. Have clear job descriptions and expectations. It is crucial that each person in the office or organization understands the overall objectives as well as their part in them. This is a little more challenging in the administrative profession because admins typically wear many hats. So do the best you can, and make sure people know what is expected of them and that you understand what is expected of you. When needed, gently restate those expectations.
2. Bring the parties involved in the conflict together to resolve the issue. Recognizing the conflict is one of the first steps toward resolution. Learn to recognize conflict early on. Pay attention to body language and be aware of the moods of those around you. Many facial and bodily expressions and changes of bearing can indicate conflict.
Realize that just because people can, and will, notice conflict doesn't mean that they will do anything about it. Many people actually expend a great deal of time and energy devising ways to avoid people with whom they have some type of conflict rather than taking a few moments to try and resolve the problem. Some even believe that ignoring the situation is the answer, which rarely, if ever, is effective. Many times over, the situation can snowball into something worse.
Depending on the situation, a mediator or third party may need to be called in. By calling a meeting, you are recognizing the problem and giving a clear message that you don't want it to continue. Depending on the parties involved, you can decide to come together on your own or bring in a third party.
Whichever route you choose, set some ground rules for expected behavior and what you'd like the outcome to be. Some examples include:
No interrupting until the other party is finished speaking.
Set a timer and give each party a predetermined amount of time to present their side of the story or just allow a certain amount of time for the resolution of individual issues or elements of the conflict.
State that each party must be willing to cooperate.
Request that everyone is honest and not petty.
Use the "stop, look, and listen" method. Repeat those three words to yourself as much as needed to help you remember to truly listen to who his speaking versus thinking about your reply.
If the meeting gets heated, take a deep breath and stay relaxed. Stay calm and don't react to volatile comments. Maintain eye contact and respond by speaking softly and slowly. Above all else, if you can't do anything to keep yourself calm, ask for a break, walk away, or set an appointment to meet the next day.
3. Put the specific issues in writing. Besides recognizing conflict, another crucial step is assessing it. Instead of ignoring the situation, some people will jump right into action without really stopping to think about what is causing the problem or is at the heart of it.
Putting things in writing helps to assess the situation. It also makes the situation less emotional, more practical, helps to keep the focus of the conversation where it's needed, and gives more credibility to what you have to say. In addition, it inspires courage to speak up and it helps you to remember what you need to share with your audience.
Here are some suggestions to help make this process easier:
Refer to specific incidents that upset you. Don't use generic words such as "they," "never," or "always." Using such language will just escalate the conflict. Other words that escalate conflicts are those that imply ultimatums—"unless," "can't," "won't," or "should."
Begin by sharing how you feel, not by focusing on what the other person "should" be doing. Start the conversation with: "I feel," "I think," or "I wish." Give "I" messages. Don't blame or accuse. State your understanding of the situation. Words and expressions that deescalate conflict are "maybe," "perhaps," "sometimes," "what if," "it seems like," "I feel," "I think," and "I wonder."
Keep an open mind regarding what may transpire. Understand that the other party may not accept or respect your thoughts. So be it. The point is that you have done your part in working toward resolution. This meeting is not an easy one; putting things in writing makes it easier.
4. Create an accountability structure. Once everyone has had the chance to air their grievances, set steps for improvement for each person. Write down some clear, agreed-upon steps for making things better. Be sure that each person involved feels the benefits for themselves and the entire team; set it up as a win/win situation versus win-lose.
You may also find it helpful at this point to state what could happen if each person doesn't follow the outlined steps. But don't make this statement in a threatening fashion. Use a matter-of-fact tone instead.
5. Always value the working relationship. Above and beyond everything else, do not let anyone walk away from the meeting not feeling valued and appreciated. Share the team goals, and remind everyone of the good that can come of the meeting and what your overall vision is for the group. It is important that all parties hear how important the other people are in the room. If it is a one-on-one meeting, simply state the skills that you appreciate about the other person.
Naturally, this entire process requires positive communication skills. A common theme for resolution is communication; you can't resolve anything without it. For that matter, most conflict shows up due to poor communication, or lack of it.
Conflict can be an opportunity. When you experience conflict, embrace it and see what good can come of it.
©2003, PLM Inc. All Rights Reserved. Peggy L. McNamara is an effectiveness expert who works with organizations and executives who want inspiring, practical value from their meetings, conferences, and conventions. Reach her at 888.269.7771 or visit www.peggymcnamara.com.
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