I have worked with team members who clashed over their contributions to a shared project, with team leads who have battled over their position with the leadership team, with managers who don’t see eye to eye with their direct reports, and problems between customers, partners, and communities.
While there are various causes of conflict, these situations often boil down to breakdowns in either (1) expectations, (2) communication, or (3) perception. If left unchecked, these breakdowns act like a series of papercuts, niggling away at people, often culminating in an outburst that you need to try and unwind.
So, how do you handle and ultimately resolve these conflicts? Follow these five steps that I have used consistently in resolving conflict scenarios across the communities I have worked with.
Step 1: Find a facilitator
The people in the conflict are too close to the flame to be objective, so you need a facilitator to help unwind the situation and evaluate how to resolve it. This person needs to be a trusted third party that both sides of the conflict can have faith in. Ideally, they are a known entity to both parties, but not seen as having a bias towards one side or the other.
Great facilitators are good active listeners, are able to manage a meeting without being dominant, and can form objective, pragmatic viewpoints.
Step 2: Identify root causes
Presuming you are the facilitator, coordinate calls with each party in the conflict individually. Importantly, these need to be phone or video calls, or in-person meetings. Don’t use text messaging, email, forum, Slack, or other textual channels. You need to reintroduce the humanity back into the equation, so both parties can hear your tone and you can understand theirs.
Expect a whole raft of venting, packed with emotion and exaggeration in these calls. Let them get it off their chest, and don’t pass judgement. As you listen, try to pick apart the key themes that are forming. Is it misaligned expectations? Has there been poor communication? Is there an inaccurate perception between the different sides? Are there cultural elements at play such as a language barrier, different levels of experience, or something else? Note down these observations privately.
Step 3: Design pragmatic solutions
When you have completed these calls and summarized these root causes, brainstorm a set of pragmatic, doable solutions that you suspect both parties will be open to.
If a root cause is different expectations of project participation, could you put together a shared project plan both sides can feed into? Maybe you can roll in some additional lightweight reporting to ensure everyone is on the same page?
If a root cause is communication issues, could a set of regular calls with a clear agenda be a solution? Maybe you can agree to a weekly roll-up of work to review completed work and plan the next set of tasks?
The key point here is a set of simple, manageable, and objective solutions designed to mitigate the root cause issues you identified.
Now, write these solutions down into a crisp, single-page summary. This solutions should be direct, measurable, and focused. Cut out the verbiage: the focus here is clarity and something that both sides of the conflict can clearly understand.
Step 4: Present and get agreement on solutions
Now schedule a meeting with both parties (again phone/video/in-person) and thank both for their feedback and input. Build their confidence that we can rectify these issues with simple and pragmatic solutions.
Now walk through your proposed solutions. Ask for questions and solicit feedback, and ensure they feel comfortable with the next steps. If you get some pushback, be responsive, but you may also need to emphasize the importance of compromise in the interests of the broader goals of the company of organization they are part of.
As you facilitate this discussion, be overt in requesting feedback, don’t just expect them to douse you with input: they often won’t. Ask them directly, and make it clear that any and all constructive feedback is welcome. If they try to bring the discussion back to the conflict and pointing fingers, redirect them back to the solutions.
When the call is completed, make any requested adjustments (which are often nitpicking the language), and then email the document to both parties.
Step 5: Check-in
Now schedule a regular set of calls to check-in on their progress. The cadence of these will depend largely on the specific case, but this could be weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly.
These calls are critical: by putting together and getting agreement on these solutions, both parties are agreeing to be accountable for next steps. These calls are a way for you to check in, and where progress is not being made, help them to course-correct.
Practice Makes Perfect
Part of the reason why this overall method works well is that it focused on extracting practical root causes out of an emotional situation and to focus on pragmatic solutions. This requires some careful facilitation, and don’t expect to get it perfect when you start doing this.
At the end of a conflict scenario, perform a quick assessment of how it went. Identify what went well, what didn’t, and share these findings with other members of your team who might want to also be facilitators. Good luck!