Putting out fires is an all-too-common job requirement for many managers. If you’re struggling with establishing positive conflict resolutions among your employees or just need a little help confronting these challenges, the National Conflict Resolution Center offers advice on how you can master these tough talks.
“Disagreements, disputes, and honest differences are normal in any workplace,” says Steven Dinkin, coauthor along with Barbara Filner and Lisa Maxwell of The Exchange: A Bold and Proven Approach to Resolving Workplace Conflict. “When these normal occurrences are treated as opportunities for exploring new ideas about projects, they can become catalysts for increased energy and productivity. Getting to that place starts with an honest discussion.”
The following tips—excerpted from The Exchange—will teach you how to turn your next meeting with conflicting employees into a productive conversation.
1. Start with an icebreaker.
Most people will be ready to complain, debate, or argue at the beginning of any conflict-based conversation. They have marshaled their most compelling arguments and are ready for battle. If you go straight to the topic of controversy, most people will quickly get stuck in defending their positions and attacking their opponents.
“That’s why you need to do something different,” says Dinkin. “The Exchange teaches that you should begin with an icebreaker. This is not just a light introductory activity. It is a way to non-confrontationally initiate a conversation about difficult issues. An ideal icebreaker asks for a person’s own take on something that’s both work-related and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two employees involved in the same project, you might break the ice by asking each of them how they became involved in the project and what they hoped to achieve.”
Conflict resolution is tricky because too many managers ignore the fact that sometimes what they aren’t saying is more important than what they are saying. Often the best resolutions come from listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Being an active listener sends the message that you are genuinely concerned about him or her and the dispute. Put plain and simply, it’s the best way to get good information.
“Ask an open-ended question,” advises Dinkin. “It can be as simple as, ‘So, tell me, what’s going on?’ Then listen carefully to that person’s side of the story. You’ll know it’s time to insert yourself into the conversation when the discussion turns negative."
3. Use and encourage positive language.
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but any frustrated manager knows how easy it can be to slip into negativity after a conflict has affected a workgroup. Always think before you speak. Use positive, easy-to-understand language. Don’t fall into repeating, verbatim, paragraphs from your company’s HR manual.
“Remember, you’re having a conversation, not a trial,” says Dinkin. “If you keep the language positive, whoever you’re addressing will likely mirror what you’re doing. Even referring to the department’s needs can be stated in very positive terms, which will lead to a more collaborative (rather than punitive) tone in the discussion. For example, if the manager says, ‘This has increasingly affected the entire team, and we need to address it so we can get everyone focused back on the project goals and having a comfortable working environment. I am looking forward to establishing a good working relationship between the two of you and improving morale for everyone on the team,’ it will set a constructive atmosphere. When you keep things positive, you can work toward great solutions efficiently and effectively.”
4. Work toward SMART solutions.
Sustainable solutions are SMART solutions. That means they’re:
- Specific: Be clear about who will do what, when, where, and how.
- Measurable: Be clear about how you will all be able to tell that something has been done, achieved, or completed.
- Achievable: Make sure that whatever solution you agree on fits the situation; that it complies with both the law and organizational policy; that everyone involved has the ability and opportunity to do what is required of them. Don’t set up anyone to fail.
- Realistic: Check calendar dates for holidays and vacations; look at past performance to predict future actions; allow extra time for glitches and delays; don’t assume that the best-case scenarios will come true.
- Timed: Create reasonable deadlines or target dates; include a few ideas about what to do if something unexpected occurs; be willing to set new dates if necessary.
“Once you have your SMART solutions in place, immediately put them in writing,” says Dinkin. “Putting solutions in writing is very important, and not just for legal reasons... It’s a way to honor the work that you and your employees have accomplished. It’s also a way to keep people’s memories from diverging from the agreed-upon solutions. Verbal agreements have a way of being remembered very differently by different people—and then becoming the subject of another conflict. It’s safer and easier for everyone to have the solutions written down, in order to be able to easily verify them later.”
About the Authors:
Steven P. Dinkin is president of NCRC. He received his law degree from George Washington University, where he taught a mediation clinic as an adjunct law professor. He has also taught mediation courses in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. For several years with the Center for Dispute Settlement in Washington, D.C., Steve served as an employment and workplace mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies. In 2003, he moved to San Diego to lead NCRC. His experience managing a talented and opinionated staff has contributed to the realism of this book.
Barbara Filner was the director of training for NCRC from 1984-2010. She currently works as a consultant for NCRC. Barbara has a master’s degree in teaching from Indiana University and has worked as a teacher, a labor union official, and an analyst in local and state government. She has designed and conducted workshops on mediation and conflict resolution in the workplace in both the United States and Europe. She has lived in Pakistan, India, and Egypt, and thus brings a multicultural perspective to this book. She has also co-written two books about culture and conflict, Conflict Resolution Across Cultures (Diversity Resources) and Mediation Across Cultures (Amherst Educational Publishing).
Lisa Maxwell is currently the director of the training institute at NCRC. She has traveled all over the world as a trainer for NCRC for almost 20 years. Lisa has a master’s degree in education from San Diego State University and has developed curricula and taught courses at the high school and university levels. Mrs. Maxwell developed and is the lead trainer in The Exchange Training. Lisa has worked with businesses, with the military, and with nonprofit organizations on finding creative, effective ways to manage conflicts.
About the Book: The Exchange: A Bold and Proven Approach to Resolving Workplace Conflict (CRC Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-4398529-8-9, www.ncrconline.com) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers. To learn more about the NCRC visit www.ncrconline.com.