27 September 2023

Conflict resolution: Stepping in when disputes arise

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May Busch* relays advice she once gave to a leader who was called in to mediate in an escalating problem between two team members.

As the leader of the unit, my client Marina was called in to resolve a conflict between two team members.

This one was especially tricky as it was between a senior team member and a junior one who had already escalated the issue to human resources.

Based on HR’s briefing, it looked like a series of unfortunate miscommunications and assumptions had led to the problem.

Now both parties were entrenched in their positions and demanding apologies.

It was up to Marina to try and defuse the situation. She asked me for advice on how to handle the separate meetings with each individual she was about to have.

In case you might face a similar situation, I’ll share the strategies we discussed for handling possible pitfalls.

Choose your words wisely

When you’re dealing with an already messy situation where people are all too ready to take offence, it pays to choose your words wisely.

The words you use can trigger a totally different reaction in others than what you intended.

In particular, when dealing with a tricky conversation, stay away from words that might sound confrontational or like you’re arguing.

Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a debate where both of you move farther away from a good outcome.

For example, ‘why’ and ‘but’ are words we commonly use, but they can get you in trouble.

Your innocent “why did you do that?” can sound like “why on earth did you do something so stupid?”

‘But’ essentially says you disagree with what was just said.

You could be negating a positive you’ve just stated: “You’re usually right, but in this case you’re not.” It’s not helpful.

Depending on the individual, there may be other terms you use innocently but that trigger the other person to get upset.

Like referring to ‘ladies’ when they prefer ‘women’.

Or downplaying the seriousness of their complaint by saying they’re “blowing things way out of proportion” when it’s all they’ve been thinking about for weeks.

Go with the flow

It’s tempting to feel like you need to find the solution on the first conversation. This may happen, but it may not.

When you think you must get it done in one meeting, it puts a lot of pressure on both of you to come to a conclusion.

So go with the flow and if you can’t tie things up with a neat bow in this one meeting, leave the door open for continuing the conversation.

Don’t force an unnatural conclusion that the other person might not feel good about.

Get clear on what success looks like

In these kinds of conversations, it’s important to set some guideposts for yourself on where you want to head.

Having goal clarity also allows you to formulate the right questions to ask during the meeting to keep things on a constructive path.

For example, Marina’s goal is to help the parties return to a constructive working relationship.

So if her team member says his goal is to get an apology from the other colleague, which may not happen, she’ll know to keep probing for his other, broader goals.

What if your goals and theirs are not aligned, like their wanting an apology while you want a high performing team?

This is where you need to find the common ground.

One way to do this is by digging deeper to uncover their bigger underlying goals beyond what they’ve initially stated.

Like having a successful career at the organisation or making a meaningful contribution in the field.

As long as the goals aren’t mutually exclusive, you’ll have something you can work with.

Prepare for the meeting

Make sure that you’ve taken care of your own needs before stepping into the meeting.

If you’re hungry, angry or distracted, you won’t be at your best.

That means you won’t be able to be present during the conversation and might miss key nuances or try to close down the conversation before it’s time to conclude.

If that means postponing the conversation, then make sure you explain.

The other person may have been waiting anxiously to speak with you, and an unexplained postponement is likely to lead them to assume the worst.

*May Busch works with smart entrepreneurs and top managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on May’s blogsite.

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