How does one plan for managing conflict in the workplace in the midst of a global pandemic, presidential transition in the United States, and overall uncertainty throughout the world? What does conflict resolution look like in a virtual or hybrid workplace if it is no longer possible to meet a colleague by the watercooler or stop by a supervisor’s office to casually run something by them? Regardless of what is going on in the world, conflict will always be constant.
My company, Breakthrough ADR, advises organizations that aspire to have a frictionless workplace. We teach our clients how to listen, negotiate and resolve conflict in a variety of settings.
In the course of that work, we have observed that regardless of the workplace environment, people often act in predictable ways. Our observations have led us to develop five SMART strategies to help your company resolve business conflict in the new year.
1. Separate the person from the problem. Although your work environment may look different these days, most workplace conflicts consistently have two foundational elements: (1) the people involved in the conflict and (2) the problem those people seek to address. In order to most effectively resolve a conflict, you have to separate (1) from (2). Sometimes the problem itself is simple to resolve, but because of the people involved (including their philosophies, experiences, and personalities) the resolution is not apparent or seemingly out of reach. As you enter the new year, pledge to stop conflating people and problems, and address each separately.
2. Make a point to understand the underlying interests, and not just the stated positions of the people in conflict. The distinction between what a person is saying they want versus why they want something is important to recognize and sometimes reveals that the underlying goals of the parties are more aligned than divergent. Once interests are known, positions often soften, and common ground can be reached.
3. Accept reality with a “Yes, and…”. As an improv student at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, I learned the “Yes, and” technique. Essentially, this approach fosters a sense of cooperation because each improviser is encouraged to listen and be receptive to the ideas of others regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the premise. How this translates to conflict resolution is easy. Saying “Yes, but …” halts a conversation because once you say “but” you negate everything that preceded that word. “Yes, and …” builds communication bridges that you can use to reach an understanding. By substituting one word, choosing “and” instead of “but,” you can open the door to engage in collaborative problem-solving.
4. Resolve with everyone at the table. Once the door to resolving the conflict is open, make sure you invite everyone involved in the conflict to the table. It is a waste of time to try to solve a conflict when a key person to the situation is not a part of the conversation. You cannot agree to acts, omissions, or changes in behavior on behalf of someone else—the person in question has to be involved. While I do not advise forcing someone who steadfastly refuses to be involved to the table, creative leaders can set the tone for the organization and properly incentivize all stakeholders to come to the table.
5. Trust the process. Effective and durable change requires time, patience, and flexibility. There will likely be challenges when you implement a well thought out conflict management plan, particularly if the change of course is significant. Naturally, some participants in the plan may doubt it— e.g., “the plan will work too slowly” or “the plan is never going to work”—but as a leader you need to trust the process and encourage your team to do so. If you have engaged in a quality process where you have followed the prior four strategies, then the plan that you have designed has a high probability for success. Plus, remember that plans are guidelines that can be revisited and adapted as your organization grows and changes.
While conflict is inevitable, business conflict is manageable, preventable, and resolvable utilizing these SMART tips.
Damali Peterman, Esq., is the CEO and founder of Breakthrough ADR L.L.C.