Conflict Resolution Crackdown: A Practical Guide To Restoring Harmony

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Conflict Resolution is rarely easy — or simple

For successful conflict resolution, you need guts, tenacity, compassion, and a willingness to see different viewpoints. You also need resilience, good emotional intelligence, and sometimes, a thick skin. It’s very useful to have a proven process. The process, along with the other skills and personal traits, can all be learned.

This post contains a conflict resolution strategy, which will be demonstrated through a relatable scenario. You’ll also find other articles on the website that deal with complementary traits. So, if you’re ready to dive into the world of conflict resolution, buckle up and get ready for some insightful guidance.

If you’re reading this because there’s a potential problem brewing, please read this post (How To Avoid Potential Conflict: 8 Steps To Maintain Peace) first.

If you’re involved in a situation that has gone way past being a problem, or if more than one other person is involved, its time to invoke some serious intervention.

Before I give you an overview of the formula, here’s the scenario I’ll be using as an example. You might remember in the previous article a team member had spoken abruptly to four different customers. Let’s use the same example, but assume it was not addressed and has thus become worse.

Here’s the scenario I’ll use:

Four customers have complained to you that Margaret, who works for you as part your team, has been very dismissive and blunt with them on the phone. One customer has just closed his account with the company because he’s had enough of the way Margaret’s been speaking to him.

angry customer service woman in telephone

In this post, I’ll use this example to demonstrate how (and how not) to use each step, so you have a useful illustration of how the process works.

It’s important to understand that you can use this formula in any conflict situation; with partners, children, bosses, subordinates, colleagues. Its the same formula.

Now let’s examine each step in the formula, and apply it to this scenario to see what’s involved:

Preparation: Establish a level of rapport

Make sure you’re in a calm, resourceful state. (Try the Calm Spot). If you’re agitated before beginning the process, it’s unlikely you’ll be effective.

Our natural tendency, when faced with a potential conflict, is to disengage from rapport. Unfortunately, this makes the situation worse and may cause escalation. So get into physical rapport by mirroring body language.

Why does mirroring work?

We like people who are like us. Mirroring — making our body language a mirror image of the other persons — is a natural and unconscious behaviour when we like someone or are getting along. When we dislike someone, or there’s a problem, our unconscious response is to get out of rapport physically. This just creates a communication hurdle.

Rather than sitting or standing straight in front of someone, which can become confrontational, stand alongside or at a slight angle to each other. Avoid creating a blockade with a large piece of furniture between the two of you — a table — for example.

Step 1. State the problem, factually and without blame or emotion

2 women talking about a problem

It’s important to keep emotion out of the discussion at the start. Usually, unrestrained emotion is hard to hear and deal with, and tends to inflame the situation, further stressing relationships. 

So stick to the facts as you know them, and avoid judgmental words. Write down what you want to say before tackling the issue. In this way, you can check that what you’ve written meets the criteria of being factual and unemotional.

Example: “I’ve received four complaints from customers. They say that you were dismissive and blunt with them on the telephone and that they find you difficult to deal with. One customer has now closed his account with us.”

How NOT to implement step 1

“I’m sick and tired of customers telling me how fed up they are of dealing with you. Four complaints today! One just closed his account because of you. What’s wrong with you, woman! You’re making my life hell! Why can’t you just be nice to people!”

Step 2. State how you feel about the problem.

At this point, you can describe your feelings and emotions. However, its important not to blame the other person for how you feel. You’re the only one who can control you, so you must own your feelings and emotions. Again it can be useful to write these down.

Example: “I feel frustrated and annoyed. I’m all knotted up inside.”

Make sure you’re expressing real feelings and emotions and that you haven’t just replaced the word ‘think’ for the word ‘feel’. For instance:

Not: “I feel you’re being ignorant and letting the side down.”

You can see that ‘being ignorant’ and ‘letting the side down’ aren’t feelings at all — they’re judgements. As a general rule, if you include the word ‘that’ after the word ‘feel’ (as in the case above), and the sentence still makes sense, what you’re describing are not feelings. Try it with the two sentences above, and I think you’ll realise what I mean.

O.K. Lets move on

Step 3. State the impact on you (short and long term)

In this step, you can talk about the current mental, physical, emotional effects on you personally as well as the wider consequences. You can also state the longer term implications, where those are applicable. Be careful not to blame the other person for these. 

So, using our previous case scenario, step 3 might look something like this:

“It’s affecting the whole business because it reflects on everyone in the company. I’m worried that we’ve lost a customer and could lose others. On top of this, we’re getting a bad reputation.”

Not: “It’s your fault we’re losing customers. The company will be bankrupt at this rate!”

Step 4. Listen to what others have to say in response

Dictionary definition of listening

It’s important to give the person at the centre of the conflict an opportunity to voice their opinions, concerns and perceptions. This is where empathy and reflective listening skills are vital.

At this point, the other person will probably have something to say! She’ll probably want to put her side of the story; tell you what’s really going on for her, or even put the blame somewhere else (back on you for example).

Be aware that you’re at a critical stage where a conflict can quickly escalate

Your reflective listening and rapport skills (see the previous article) are going to be extremely handy at this point! So stay in rapport, listen and reflect back until the other person feels they’ve said all they want to say and that you have heard. Avoid talking over the top of one another.

Reflective listening techniques:

  • Listen to their response without an agenda:
  • Listen to understand. (Don’t just listen for ammunition that you can use to prove your point.)
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Ask yourself, What’s the real issue? What is causing the upset? What would resolve it?

Step 5. Initiate Ideas for conflict resolution — brainstorm

group brainstorming

Brainstorming

Next, invite those involved to brainstorm some solutions that will meet both your needs. Or, if more than two people are involved, all your needs. When brainstorming it’s useful to aim for quantity, not quality.

Write down all ideas, preferably on a white board, in a place where everyone can see them.

Don’t judge or evaluate any of the ideas at this stage

By deciding how appropriate each suggestion is as you hear it, you limit the flow of ideas. People will think they can only suggest good ideas and thus become inhibited in their thinking. So be objective and open-minded at this stage. Just keep generating possible solutions.

In my experience, some of the most seemingly ridiculous suggestions have triggered brilliant ideas that, once implemented, achieved great success. But without the ridiculous suggestions, the ones that worked would not have been voiced. Aim to come up with at least 20 ideas.

Don’t be too pushy with your ideas for resolving it though. Be flexible and write down all possibilities.

Step 6 – Pick a solution that meets all needs

Sometimes a combination of solutions might work better than just one to resolve the conflict. Is/are the solution/s doable? It’s important to meet everyone’s needs and outcomes and make sure no-one is disadvantaged. If you can’t come up with solutions that satisfy everyone – go back to step 5 and brainstorm some more.

Step 7-  Develop an Agreement

Its time to check whether anything else needs to be done or said before you implement the solution(s) and restore the relationships. You could ask, “Is there anything else that needs to be said or done so we can resolve the matter completely now?” Listen to responses and pay attention to anyone who doesn’t say anything. Watch for incongruent body language and voice tones; people might be saying they agree when their body language says the opposite.

If necessary repeat the question to everyone individually. The last thing you want is for someone not to speak up, but then stir up trouble behind the scenes because they didn’t feel heard or understood.

Some examples of what else might be needed to achieve a conflict resolution:

  • An apology.
  • Change of work flow.
  • Revision of policies or procedures.
  • Modification of job description.
  • More training.
  • Additional staff.
  • For you to change some aspect of your behaviour (hence why you might need a thick skin!)
  • To listen to each other attentively.

You can double check by asking these questions: “What else needs to happen for us to learn from this and put it behind us?” And, “How will these solutions ultimately resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction?”

Write up the agreed solution(s) on the white board, including any agreed-upon time frames, and make sure everyone is happy. Then follow up by giving everyone a copy of the agreement with appropriate dates.

Ask everyone involved to check the documents’ accuracy and suggest any possible alterations within a specified timeframe. It’s important that everyone is comfortable and that the agreement reflects their understanding.

The conflict resolution agreement should also contain a review date so you can all check in with each other to verify how the changes are working. It might also deal with how you propose to handle any situation or behaviour which seems to contradict your arrangement.

Any conflict resolution should include a requirement to preserve relationships.

Seal the Deal

coming to agreement - conflict resolultion

You can engender commitment to the resolution(s) in a variety of ways depending on the context and circumstances:

  • All sign the agreement.
  • Shake hands.
  • Hug (if appropriate).
  • All of the above.

Make sure to review the agreement as arranged. Put it in your diary and make sure the review happens in a timely manner.

  • Check how things are going now.
  • Does anything else need to be done? If so, agree how this will happen.
  • Is there anything that we could improve?

A few words of caution

Please, don’t try and do this conflict resolution process by text, email or phone. Make sure everyone concerned is in the same room or a least on the same video call. 

When you speak to someone face-to-face you have three modes of receiving their message; the words, their tone of voice and their nonverbal language (including body language). Body language and tone make up a huge percentage of communication effectiveness.

When you send an email or text message, you rely solely on your words. The reader will put their spin on the tone of the email and imagine the body language based on the words and probably their previous experience of and beliefs about you.

If you ever receive an email (or text) that you feel upset by — do not reply by email or text. Talk to the person who sent it, preferably face-to-face. Ask them what their intention was in sending the correspondence. If you can’t speak to the person face-to-face, call them up and ask. And if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, ask someone else to go with you to support you or to act as a mediator.

If you’re involved in a conflict resolution meeting:

Set some ground rules for how it will proceed.

At a minimum some of these could be:

  • One person talks at a time
  • Listen to understand
  • Reflective listen before responding
  • Treat people respectfully
  • Have an intention to achieve win/win solutions
  • Behave in accordance with company values.

If you get stuck, you’re in New Zealand, and the conflict is employment based, you can contact Employment New Zealand mediation Service.  More specifically you can get access to the mediation service for resolution of workplace or employment relationship problems. Anyone can do this — and at any stage of a work conflict. You don’t have to wait until a situation has gotten completely out of hand and everyone hates the sight of each other!REAL People Skills eBook on Tablet

Get my eBook REAL People Skills and learn How To Be Influential Without Fighting, Bulldozing Or Banging Your Head!

If you would like to learn skills that will enable you to stay calm, listen effectively, ask good questions and resolve issues before they get out of hand, register for the next Power of Personal Change.

Other posts you might find useful:

Summary: 7 Step conflict resolution guide

  1. State the problem, factually and without blame or emotion
  2. State how you feel about the problem.
  3. State the impact on you (short and long term)
  4. Listen to what others have to say in response
  5. Initiate Ideas for conflict resolution – brainstorm
  6. Pick a solution that meets all needs
  7. Develop an Agreement.

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Tags: Communication skills, Conflict, Interpersonal skills, listening, Thinking and mindset

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