Wherever there is conflict, there is liable to be escalating stress. As a project manager, your actions and reactions in the face of conflict will set an example for the team. Every conflict is unique, but basically is about managing opposing forces and disagreement. You’ll see that resolving conflict calls on influence, communication and stress management, all critical skills for project managers.

Maintain your calm

First, and foremost, maintain your calm. When you enter the fray, it’s easy to get pulled into the emotions which are rampant in a conflictual situation. The previous blog covered some ways you can manage your stress.

Acknowledge the tension

Take a moment to acknowledge the tensions. Even better, ask everyone to take a nice deep breathe before moving on in the conversation. Some conflicts are less a matter of discussion for the group as a need to go offline with an individual. Recognize the difference and take issues offline when you can. When you can’t….

Get multiple perspectives

It’s important at this stage to get perspective from everyone rather than wading in to make a sweeping decision without enough knowledge, or letting the situation go on without intervention. Ask questions to get a sense of what happened as well as the opposing forces and issues. Never assume you know the answer before you have taken stock of the full situation. Make sure you have enough information to determine the core requirements. 

Use active listening

Use your active listening skills to pay attention to different perspectives. Focus on both understanding the facts of what happened, but also the assumptions and conclusions team members have drawn as a result.

Disrupt negative thinking patterns

As you are working through the assumptions and conclusions, you’re likely to detect negative thinking patterns. Use questions to break the pattern and point out the alternatives. It’s easy to get sucked into focusing on establishing blame. In the midst of conflict is not the time or place to address it.

Make sure you get to the root cause

As you begin to explore the problem, it can be easy to jump to conclusions about what the root cause is. But one of the reasons problem-solving fails is people are solving for the wrong problem. We can make the mistake of stopping at a consequence of the root problem instead of digging deep enough. You need to get down to the deepest level of why. Keep asking why until you are sure you’ve reached the root of the issue.

Keep the focus on solving the problem

Continue to redirect the discussion on solving the problem. Once the problem is clear and the core requirements have been established, it’s time to formulate a problem statement. Distill everything you heard back into a simple statement focused on facts, objectives, and barriers. Once you’ve done that, everyone has a common understanding of the problem and you can focus on the potential solutions.

At this point, you are still probing with questions but shifting to a focus on identifying alternatives to resolve the problem. Obviously, you can also suggest your own potential solutions to the issue. At the end of this process, you want to have different options for resolution. After weighing the pros and cons of the various alternatives, zoom in on one or two alternatives at the most. Refine the alternatives based on objections and suggestions. In the last step in the process, you’ll want to test for agreement on the solution. The only outstanding question is – who will make the final decision?

Know when you need a consensus

It’s tough to get to consensus without making major concessions that compromise end quality. Sometimes when we try to ensure group consensus, we make irrational decisions to avoid conflictual points of view. We stifle strong opinions of the few for the approval of the many – even when the strong opinion is from someone deeply experienced in the issue.  But you may not need the consensus of each party to resolve the conflict.

Sometimes, there’s not enough time. Sometimes, someone in authority will decide for the group.  Not all stakeholders may feel invested in the outcome of this particular decision. In that case, they can sit it out. If a decision IS made without consensus, make sure to share the logic and reasoning.

If the conflict is a cross departmental one, there may not be one authority to decide. Finally, when all parties feel strongly about the decision, you’ll want to make sure they buy into it.

It’s possible to reach a consensus even when people don’t entirely agree. Some people may prefer a different alternative but agree that the one proposed is better to reach the ultimate objective. Some may have reservations but still be willing to move ahead. The only scenario which keeps you from moving forward is if someone is in complete disagreement. In that scenario, another alternative will have to be found. 

Successful project and account managers are leveraging conflict management skills as well as influence, communication and stress management. Get more blogs like this for project managers on To The Lighthouse