5 Game-Changing Steps for Effective Conflict Resolution

Thomas Crum - how we handle conflicts

Conflict. Here’s a topic for everybody!

“I hate confrontation.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this sentence. Or better yet, a dime for every conflict I’ve watched NOT happen because it’s too difficult.

Conflict in itself isn’t bad. It can actually lead to all kinds of creative ideas, breakthroughs, growth, and trust. Bad conflict is bad. And we’re all so nervous about conflicts going south that we avoid them like the plague.

We’ve learned to avoid them. When we’ve been in conflicts, a lot of hurtful things have been said. We’ve come away from past conflicts feeling misunderstood, controlled, disrespected, and hopeless.

Here’s the thing, though: Conflict needs to happen. Even–and maybe especially–on a team. We’re all in this together, but we bring different focuses, different experiences, different strengths, and different priorities to the table. And fitting those together can be a confusing task. Unfortunately, we tend to get emotional and do a really bad job at meshing all our great ideas.

So we’ve learned to hate conflict.

 

“Conflict can destroy a team which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.” – Thomas Isgar

I’d bet all those nickels and dimes that all these conflicts that we just can’t seem to get away from would go a lot better if we’d do some preparation ahead of time (like right now)–learn how to navigate them effectively, so that we have a program to follow in the heat of the moment.

Like any manager (or team member), I’ve experienced a lot of conflicts at work and have gotten to pick up some great tips. I’ve learned some really bad ways to deal with conflict, and I’ve learned a few really helpful strategies, too. I’ve also discovered that the lessons about conflict I’ve learned from work cross-apply to every other area of life.

I’ve got 5 ideas about conflict I’d like to share with you. These are 5 steps I now ask my team to take whenever I’m playing the role of mediator. And 5 steps I TRY to remember to take when I find myself in conflict, too.

They REALLY help me. I hope they help you, too!

 

(Before we get started, one little note about formality. Like awkwardly following this really structured formula when discussing bad feelings or difficult things–a note about that kind of formality: It’s really good.)

 

Step 1: Take turns saying what you want each other to know about your conflict styles.

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” – Dale Carnegie

Person A gets really nervous in conflict and has a really hard time coming up with words to say or specific examples to give. If I don’t know this, I’ll think Person A clearly doesn’t have a good point or thoughtful argument to make.

Person B has a really hard time controlling their emotions and their tone in an argument, because a lot of unfair conflicts have let them feeling really unsafe. They get that some of what they say is overkill, disrespectful, or too combative, and they’re sorry about that. If I don’t know this, I’ll just be offended when Person B gets heated and I’ll just write them off as being kind of a jerk.

Person C feels really uncomfortable when discussing feelings. If I don’t know that, when I tell Person C how crappy they’ve made me feel, and their face looks like a stone wall, I’ll assume they really don’t care.

What about your conflict style gets you into trouble? What if you started by explaining and owning that. If we can accept each other’s very human weaknesses, we may listen and understand much better, and the conflict may feel much less combative. It’s important to know that we’re all just human people trying our best.

“I don’t like that man, I must get to know him better.” – Abraham Lincoln

 

Step 2: Take turns saying exactly what you want out of this situation.

Strangely enough, we tend to get so emotional when in conflict that we often forget what we REALLY want! (Oh hey! I just wrote about that!) And just as often we just choose not to tell each other simply, clearly, and honestly what it is we want. We get so caught up in our feelings and hurt and annoyance and pride that all we want is to throw (or dodge) that next punch.

But remember that behind every conflict is a need or desire that someone believes is legitimate and important.

“Every conflict we face in life is rich with positive and negative potential. It can be a source of inspiration, enlightenment, learning, transformation, and growth–or rage, fear, shame, entrapment, and resistance. The choice is not up to our opponents, but to us, and our willingness to face and work through them.” – Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith

If we can uncover and share what it is we really want, we can move the conflict away from generally hating on each other, away from slinging random and unrelated criticisms, and away from pushing all kinds of grand agendas and changes that may actually be of no concern to us.

For example, maybe my problem is a really simple one: I feel like you think I’m stupid because you include everyone but me in your planning process. I also think it’s embarrassing that I have feelings about your opinion of me. I think you’ll just see that as being sensitive. So instead of telling you what I really want–for you to demonstrate that you value my contribution and to stop excluding me–I attack from other angles: “You’re a poor planner! You forgot to consider A, B, and C last time! You have an inappropriate cliquey relationship with others on the team! You always act like you know best!” But NONE of those were my problem, so asking you to address any of those won’t fix a thing.

I need to get really honest with myself about exactly what it is that I want out of this conflict. And then I need to be really honest, direct, and clear with you about it, too. If we can both start with saying exactly where we’re going with all this conflict stuff, exactly what we’re asking for, the rest of the conflict will be much more clear and simple–much less tangled and confusing and rabbit-traily.

 

Step 3: Take uninterrupted turns sharing what this situation has made you FEEL.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

Time to share our FEELINGS. But first, why would you say exactly what you want (step 2) BEFORE sharing your feelings (step 3)? Doesn’t that seem backwards? Here’s why: Feelings are really awkward and subjective and can be hard to listen to. Feelings can have a million reasons behind them. And if you start with your feelings, there’s a good chance I’m not really listening: I’m trying to figure out what you’re trying to get out of me. Instead, let’s make really clear what we want first, come to terms with exactly what is being asked of each other, and then we can just listen in the context of the real issues at hand, instead of guessing and worrying and interpreting the feelings we hear.

Notice, too, that we’re NOT sharing what we think the other person MEANT by their actions in the situation! We’re sharing how it is making us FEEL: “This feels to me a lot like you don’t think I have valuable ideas.” That’s a crappy feeling that you can probably identify with. On the other hand: “You’re trying to keep me from having a say.” Sure, that may be how I “FEEL” about your actions, but that is just my interpretation and you are probably incredibly uninterested in my judgment of you. So we’re not sharing our assessments of the other and their motives and behavior. We’re sharing a feeling we don’t want to live with that we’re getting from this situation. That’s a much more likely place for us to understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Finally, we need to do each other the respect in this part (every part really, but it’s especially important and hard during this step) of NOT INTERRUPTING. Feelings are the yuckiest part of it all, and they’re incredibly easy to misread, they can take a while to explain, and they’re coming from a very vulnerable place inside of us–if we’re being honest. So cutting you off so I can explain away your feeling before you’ve even finished it or felt heard–that’s about the surest way I can prove to you that I’m not interested in your point of view. It’s disrespectful and hurtful. So we’ve got to listen–truly listen–to what each of us is feeling in this situation.

“When people respond too quickly, they often respond to the wrong issue. Listening helps us focus on the heart of the conflict. When we listen, understand, and respect each other’s ideas, we can then find a solution in which both of us are winners.” – Dr. Gary Chapman

These feelings we’re sharing are the fleshed out explanation behind why we need what we’re asking for in this situation. In step 2 I say what I want. In step 3 I tell you why this is so important to me. You need to hear both.

And we may be surprised at just how much we appreciate each other’s point of view and how crappy this situation is for each other if we truly listen in this step.

“An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” – Gene Knudsen Hoffman

 

Step 4: Take turns genuinely acknowledging that each other’s experience is REAL.

“Listen first. Give your opponents a chance to talk. Let them finish. Do not resist, defend or debate. This only raises barriers. Try to build bridges of understanding.” – Dale Carnegie

If you followed the part about truly listening in step 3, this next step shouldn’t be too hard. But it’ll still be hard. In fact, I think the hardest part of conflict may be listening, and the hardest part of listening may be respectfully acknowledging that what you’ve just listened to is a real and valid experience or concern in the other’s mind.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” – Kirsten Siggins

As long as we insist that the other is unreasonable, dramatic, crazy, stubborn, over-sensitive, stupid, or just completely wrong–we’re not going to reach a place of agreement with them. You may not be interpreting the situation the same way they are, but until you can accept and appreciate that their experience of the situation is a genuine and important one, there will be no bridge for each other to cross, no path to come to agreement.

On the flip side, sometimes being heard and understood is honestly all we really need or want in a situation. Maybe at the end of the day, I really don’t need you to include me in your planning process next time, but I just desperately needed you to understand that this is how it feels to me and that it hurts, and I just want some assurance that you respect me.

And honestly, appreciating each other’s point of view is not that complicated, and no, you don’t get to just say they’re crazy. If we got to just say they’re crazy and wrong about their experience, that’s what we’d say every time. If a situation leaves you feeling something, that is a real feeling to you, and that is important. It’s how you see things. That matters. I don’t have to agree with your assessment. I don’t have to see it your way. I don’t even have to agree to what you’re asking. But at very least, I need to acknowledge that your position is a real position and that I care about your experience. Because until I do, we are not on the same team.

It is key to remember here that what matters is the extending of a caring hand. This step is not about whether you agree with the change they want to see. This step is simply about choosing to be on a team together. We’re all in this together, and until we treat each other like we are, whatever resolution we try to come up with won’t be good enough.

“Respect is essentially a yes to others, not to their demands, but rather to their basic humanity.” – William Ury

 

Step 5: Take turns saying what you need and asking for agreement and commitment.

So here’s the bad news: When you get to step 5, you might still not come to an agreement. And if you can’t come to a resolution at this point, other options may need to be explored–ending your working relationship, asking for management intervention, etc.

But–if you don’t do all that stuff in steps 1 through 4, you will almost definitely NOT agree when you get to step 5!

In other words, no matter how you handle the conflict, there’s no guarantee that it will end in agreement. There’s no magic elixir for conflict. But laying the groundwork of learning how to communicate with each other, being clear about your needs and intentions, being honest about how you feel, listening to and appreciating each other’s points of view, acknowledging each other’s value and each other’s needs–laying this groundwork just makes agreement much more likely and palatable.

So now that we’ve hashed it all out and agreed to be on a team: Given each other’s experiences and needs, what exactly would we each like to ask of the other one? And can each of us agree to these requests? Or come up with another satisfactory version? By now we should both be helping each other look for ways to make this work well for both of us, and if we put our heads together as teammates, we can definitely come up with a solution or two.

And then what it all ultimately comes down to: Are we willing to agree to each other’s requests? And can we commit to follow through with these new solutions? We’re on a team, so we’re going to have to–if we want to be on a team.

Compromising, helping, acknowledging, making room, being respectful, going the extra mile, including each other, accepting needs, finding solutions acceptable to everyone–that’s the tough stuff that makes or breaks a team.

So take turns: Say what you need. Get specific. Ask for agreement. Commit. We’re in this together now.

And if you can’t agree–and maybe you really can’t–you’d better be really careful that it’s not just you being unable to be on a team with other humans. Because if you refuse to resolve a conflict, there’s a good chance (sure, not a guarantee, but a really good chance) that the problem is you.

“I have come to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to getting what we really want in life is not the other party, as difficult as he or she can be. The biggest obstacle is actually ourselves.” – William Ury

 

What do you think? Would these steps help you next time you’re in a conflict? Could you walk your team members through this formula?

I’d love to know what else works for you when it comes to mediating or resolving conflicts, too, if you’ll comment below. I know these 5 steps aren’t the only good strategies out there!

Here’s to being on a team with the people in your life!

Observation Point, Zion National Park

Last month my wife and her sister and I drove 5000 miles around the western States. We experienced some incredible things. California’s redwoods, the great Grand Canyon, Painted Hills, The Loneliest Road in America, a Ghost Forest off the Oregon coast, and the beautiful paradise of Zion National Park. Oh, and a shocking low flyover by two fighter jets in the middle of nowhere.

There are so many stories to tell. But I want to share just one moment:

20170908_153124 (2)

Our first day in Zion, we hiked four miles of switchbacks, through narrow canyons and along sheer drop offs, all the way up to Observation Point. We could see the tiny paths we’d just come from over two thousand feet below. For a while we just sat at the top and breathed it in. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

Suddenly I found myself looking at life through a different perspective. For an amazing moment I saw all the little daily stresses and problems and dramas for what they were. Distractions. Life was not about who said that thing at work or whether my boss will still like me next year. It wasn’t about how much money I’d saved that month. Life was bigger than that. A lot bigger.

I spend most of the year working. Full time hours, narrowly focused, in a stressful environment. And while I sit at my desk I often find myself dreaming of that little corner of life that we call vacation. That thing that comes around once in a blue moon, where you get to go find a hidden gem somewhere to hang onto in your memory till the next vacation comes around.

But here, after several tough miles in the middle of nowhere (switchbacks put you in touch with your human self), I found myself glancing back at the little corner of life called a job. Sure, my work makes a difference, and jobs are important. But my job is just one tiny piece of this great big world that is mine for the taking. I can walk outside into a beautiful, real world whenever I choose. I can always live in that world I find on vacations. I just don’t always look.

My problems and stresses seemed about as small from the top of that cliff as the tiny trees that dotted the ground below. When I have to walk back down to the bottom and clock back in, those trees might look big again. But they’re not. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that. Sometimes I’ll need to step back and remember the freedom and perspective I found on the top of Observation Point, the freedom to live in a bigger world.

20170909_172121 (2)

20170908_175559 (2)

20170908_141930 (2)

20170908_180115 (2)

20170908_181810 (2)

 

“How is everything going for you?”

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

This question has been hammered into the DNA of everyone who’s ever worked with customers and clients. Why? So that the company can make sure its customers are satisfied. And uncover more opportunities to sell.

But that phrase has become essentially as ineffective at ensuring customer satisfaction as the phrase “How are you?” is at learning anything meaningful about your friend.

When someone asks how you are, you say “Fine, thanks!” In order to get the real answer you have to dig deeper. Something along the lines of, “Everything been going okay for you lately at work/with the family, etc?”

Similarly, when a customer service representative says “Is there anything else I can help you with?” we automatically say “No.” Unless we were already planning on speaking up about something else. That question has become very bad at actually getting useful information out of customers or uncovering other areas in which clients can be helped.

Here also, we should be digging a little deeper. “Can you tell me how everything has been going with your relationship with us?” “Is there anything we can be doing differently that would help you?” “How’s your experience been with us in the last year?”

Customer surveys are a decent shortcut. But they’re just that–a shortcut–and your customer knows it. Having that conversation yourself with your customer builds more rapport and trust. Your customer feels valued, heard, and genuinely cared for.

Imagine you have a large client who regularly depends on your company for a vital service. Let’s say the client has become frustrated with a lack of promptness from your team, and it has become a big enough problem that they’ve started considering other companies to use. Finally, with no warning, they make the phone call to close out their account. You’re shocked and insist you’ll do anything to help them. But it’s too late. They wouldn’t be ending their relationship if they hadn’t already set up a new relationship with a different company to take your place. And since they’ve got that up and running, you don’t have much going for you. It doesn’t mean the relationship absolutely can’t be salvaged, but you are at a serious disadvantage.

This scenario applies to almost any business. If someone needs a bank account, they don’t close their accounts until they’ve found a replacement. If someone needs an equipment supplier, they don’t end their relationship until they’ve found a supplier they think will serve them better. If someone needs a Human Resources management system, they won’t deactivate their current system until they’ve got the replacement set up and ready to go.

That means waiting till customers bring up their concerns can put you at a huge disadvantage.

What if you and your whole team were always proactive to check in with your clients? Not “Anything else?” or “How are you?” Instead, legitimately checking in–like “What have we been doing well for you lately, and what has been causing problems for you?” or “How can we serve you even better?”

Some customers wear their hearts on their sleeves. But others don’t. And if you want to keep those customers, you have to get them to open up to you before it’s too late.

I do this and and I’ve seen my own team members try it, and I can tell you it’s a game changer for sure.