How to organise an effective conversation to resolve conflicts

This article is the 8th in the series on leading people through conflict productively.

Break through the deadlock of conflict

While handling a conflict, it is essential you, as a leader, have a conversation with all those who are involved in the conflict situation. In this article, we sketch what you need to have an ideal conversation. This kind of conversation will break through the deadlock of a conflict situation and will enable people to move forward in focusing on the business goal.

The ideal conversation to resolve conflicts

Ideally a leader confronted with a conflict situation would be able to fully explore all the aspects of the situation on conflict related aspects. The conversation with those involved should be aimed

  • first at understanding the situation from the perspective of those concerned,
  • while at the same time uncovering what drove the actions and the behavior,
  • and also what caused the consequences.

This ideal conversation would aim to clarify what the people involved in the conflict situation perceive and experience.

Subsequently the conversation would establish what people imagine and what is less than factual (mostly perception based, or hear-say ‘facts’). It would also establish what is indeed real and based on facts.

You, as the leader, need to discover a shared basis of experience and perception as a basis for handling the conflict productively.

Once this shared experience and perception has been established, the interdependence of the situation with the other causal relations that are the real drivers of the conflict becomes visible and understandable.

The results of this approach

The results of this discovery conversation make it possible to evaluate what issues you need to address. You will have discovered what is real. You have also discovered what is not real, but nevertheless important as a factor because people believe it to be real.

Potential personal risks

A complicating factor (which is why we stressed the above is an ideal conversation) is that often people perceive sharing what has been an individual experience as a potential personal and professional risk.

This perception of the risk of sharing personal perceptions even increases when the topic is related to a conflict situation. It is therefore a critical success factor to meet the need for safety, or at least to identify this need and have a conversation about it. To be effective, the conversation should meet standards that allow the process to be experienced as transparent and invitingly open to the individual experience of those involved.

The proof is in the…

Saying you have an eye for safety is one, but the proof is in everyone’s actual individual experience. In order to provide the proof, your focus should be on the needs for safety of those involved in a noticeable, believable, and appreciable manner.

The reason you do this is not to please or assuage comments uttered in satisfaction reviews, but to release the right energy to accomplish the business goal. Achieving business and development objectives and attaining the goal is why we propose to leaders to act in this manner and with this method. It just works!

Release potential to achieve the goal by addressing safety concerns

The business goal ought to direct and give meaning to your actions. One of these actions has to be, in our view, insuring that the means are employable to their full potential.

In the case of conflicts, the means are the people. You have to meet their individual needs in order to release that potential. In the case of conflicts it is primarily safety that people need from you. Fulfill this need and you can handle conflict productively.

People are wired in such a way that makes it imperative that you at the very least acknowledge their safety needs. To meet these needs is to enable people to use their full potential to achieve the goal, cooperate accordingly, and evaluate and adapt based on an overlap of personal reality and actual reality.

Something new takes some time to get used to

As a rule of thumb you can safely assume individual safety needs were hardly ever discussed before, let alone met. Usually, there are neither organizational procedures, nor cultural habitual practices to guide behaviour around meeting safety concerns.

This means you have to reassure people. The individual concerns have to be brought out into the open and discussed. It should be kept in mind that discussing these concerns about risk and safety is in itself something that people do not do easily. If you do it with care, the pay-off is huge. Addressing the need for safety and taking these concerns seriously is something essential that people do need, but hardly ever experience.

Most of the time, the simple fact you identified the need for safety and offered space for discussion is enough to put the common reflex of risk aversion temporarily at bay. The reflex itself will never be put to rest entirely, but it will be allayed for a while.

A crucial precondition is that what you propose to do proves indeed to have been predictably safe. The willingness produced by a bona fide effort to identify the safety needs and talk about it genuinely will lead to another step in handling the conflict productively.

The effort will prove to be a powerful mechanism driving regular business execution and any improvement program.

Two questions to facilitate the process

Two abstract questions should be made concrete and practical before you start the conversation about your leadership observations and how to facilitate the need for safety:

  • WHEN are people tempted to listen, discuss what is said, and share their views without complicating and obscuring their personal truth of the matter?
  • WHAT do people need to tell the truth about the situation, themselves, each other and the process without rendering what is said into a meaningless story?

You will most easily find the answer to these two questions by first answering them for yourself. Suppose when you do this that the situation at hand would concern yourself, without your leadership role and corresponding authority and power. With this focus you’ll find out how the people you lead probably experience the situation as well.

When you have found your answers, you are properly equipped and prepared to initiate the ideal conversation about the conflict situation that we alluded to at the beginning of this article. This allows you to explore all the aspects of the conflict situation, address the safety needs of those involved, and by doing so start handling the conflict productively.

(Our view is based on more than three decennia of international cross-cultural experience in all sorts of organizations, met by the experience of other consultants, and is in line with scientific data. It really works and is worthwhile to try out).

By Rudi de Graaf and Iris Dorreboom

About us: 30+ years of international experience in executive coaching, working with CEO’s, their colleagues and direct reports. We provide you with an experienced, unbiased outside perception, and results focused advice.

Handling conflicts productively

We focus on handling conflicts productively, because we know they hide unexploited opportunities for growth.

Please feel invited to ask us how we can assist you in handling conflicts productively and leading people safely through conflict. Contact us directly, or use the contact form below to ask us to contact you.

Read the first 7 articles in this series about Leading people through conflict:
Leading people through conflict
Getting your message across successfully while handling conflict
Handle conflict productively: take risk aversion into account
Leading people through conflict: how to create safety
Conflict and predictability: the first step towards trust
Handling conflicts: how to get to the truth
How to transform unproductive handling of conflicts

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