Want to resolve workplace conflict? Second, train your staff

My last post looked at the first pillar of conflict resolution: having a conflict resolution policy. This is important so staff know they have a role in resolving conflict and that there is a clear process for handling disputes when they occur.

The second pillar is training staff in how they can resolve conflicts with their colleagues and, possibly, their manager.

Most people are not skilled in conflict resolution. They may not have had good conflict resolution skills modelled at home where frequently one parent ‘won’ while the other ‘gave in’ or gave up’. And we can expect no guidance from the entertainment industry as resolving conflict by patiently working through points of agreement and disagreement will never pull an audience like fights, bullets and explosions.

So, it’s hardly surprising that when people are involved in a conflict at work, they expect someone else (a manager or HR) to handle it, by which they mean disciplining the other party. However, often the manager (‘Frank’ in the scenario I outlined in my previous post) does not have the skills to deal with the situation and so does nothing.

And while Adam* waits for Frank, the conflict with Nadia* keeps escalating, both parties become more entrenched, the cheer squads rev up, productivity declines and the possibility of a quick resolution vanishes.

Conflict resolution training would inform participants about the different responses to conflict and stress the importance of active listening. It would also provide some guidance on how participants can resolve their concerns by preparing for the conversation, such as looking at hard v soft language, questioning techniques, avoiding absolutes (always, never etc), and understanding the difference between intention and effect.

So, how what would Adam handle his issues with Nadia if he had some conflict resolution training?

He would know that, in the first instance, he had to make an effort to talk to Nadia about his concerns rather than expecting someone else to fix things for him. In planning this conversation, he might consider the following questions:

  • Why do you want to have this conversation?

Do you genuinely want to resolve your issues with Nadia? Do you want to understand why she behaved that way? Are you prepared to listen to her? Do you want her to understand the effect her behaviour had on you?

If the answer to any of these questions was ‘no’, Adam might realise that he was probably not really interested in resolving the conflict. He might want to punish Nadia/make her feel guilty/take revenge etc but none of this has anything to do with resolving a conflict.

  • What do you want to say? What are you prepared to hear?

What are the important things you want Nadia to know? Are you interested in what Nadia has to say? Can you make room for the fact that there may have been misunderstandings/miscommunication etc?

If Adam has already made his mind up that Nadia has behaved disgracefully, no excuses, then there’s no point in having a conversation. However, if he’s trying to resolve a conflict, it’s helpful to be open to the idea that he may not have all the pieces to the puzzle, and that although he may see Nadia’s behaviour as inappropriate, there may have been circumstances of which he is unaware, she may not have been acting out of malice, or that she may have different values to him.

  • How will you frame your conversation so they can hear it?

How can you express your concerns, and talk about the effect this situation has had on you, without moving into blaming and guilting?

When we have been hurt, often our first response is to hurt back. But if Adam wants to resolve this conflict, there is no point insulting or blaming Nadia because she will stop listening and start flinging grenades back at him. Using ‘I’ statements is helpful here, as is reframing to take the toxicity out of his language. For example, ‘You roll your eyes when I speak in a staff meeting and that’s so inappropriate and bullying’ can become ‘I feel like you don’t respect my opinion and don’t value my contribution to the team. Is that what you really think?’

  • When and where will you talk with them?

Adam will have to decide how he will let Nadia know that he wants to speak with her. Does he try to drop by her desk when no one else is around? Send her an email? Call her? Then, if Nadia agrees to talk with him, Adam will need to find a time and place that suits them both.

Working through these questions this is a lot harder than snapping at Nadia or constantly undermining, criticising and complaining about her at every opportunity. It requires time, thought and courage. And, like all new things, it may seem a little cumbersome and awkward at first. However, if you really want to resolve things before they get out of hand, it’s worth a try and, if it works, it can feel pretty empowering. And if it doesn’t work, your conflict resolution policy will outline your next step.

Managers should also notice there are fewer people coming to them to complain. So staff training is a big win for them too.

Other advantages for managers will be discussed in my next post on the importance of conflict resolution training for them.

* Names in scenario in previous post.

Helen Collins works in a variety of dispute resolution modes including mediation, coaching and training, and conducts investigations. She assists businesses to increase productivity by managing workplace conflict.

Contact her at profitableresolutions@netpsace.net.au or visit her website at www. profitableresolutions.com

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