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Can we talk? Conflict resolution: A guide to difficult conversations

Does uttering or hearing the words "can we talk" fill you with dread? You're not alone!

Difficult conversations in the service of managing conflict are often necessary because of differing opinions, competing priorities, or interpersonal tensions. You may feel like it's easier in the moment to avoid the conflict and hope it resolves organically, but that usually causes the issue to fester and become a bigger problem.

In this article, we'll delve into the art of conflict resolution through difficult conversations. From understanding the root causes of most workplace conflict to mastering communication techniques that promote understanding and shared positive outcomes, you'll benefit from this guide and achieve the ability to manage conflicts with confidence and skill.

So, get ready to explore practical strategies and actionable tips that will take you from feeling overwhelmed to feeling empowered to transform challenging interactions into opportunities for growth, collaboration, and stronger relationships within your team and organization.

Two pie charts describing helpful and unhelpful behaviors to follow during conflict management.

Conflict resolution during difficult conversations

Conflict at work shows up in different ways including interpersonal conflict, team dynamics issues, or disagreements over organizational direction. The most common causes of conflicts at work are unclear, incomplete, or inconsistent communication that lead to misunderstandings, differences in values and priorities that lead to disagreements over approach, variations in individual preferences that lead to tension between people, role ambiguity that leads to unclear expectations or territorial behavior, and organizational uncertainty that leads to anxiety and resistance.

Leaders also face difficult conversations when managing conflicting agendas among various stakeholders. These may arise due to competing priorities, divergent interests, or differing perspectives on how to achieve shared goals. Navigating these conversations requires diplomacy, negotiation, and a focus on finding common ground.

The following framework can help leaders to navigate conflict resolution before, during, and after difficult conversations, whether you are addressing conflict between members of your team or with stakeholders.

Preparation and Planning

  • Define objectives: Clarify the objectives of the conversation and what you hope to achieve. If relevant, identify the stakeholders involved and their respective agendas and priorities. Anticipate potential points of conflict or disagreement and prepare strategies for addressing them. Identify any underlying issues that could contribute to the conflict and outline potential solutions or outcomes.

  • Gather and share information: Collect relevant information and perspectives ahead of time to gather insights and help prepare everyone for the conversation. This can be done whether you are helping to address internal team conflict or in preparation for a challenging stakeholder conversation.

  • Choose the right setting: Select a neutral setting conducive to open dialogue and confidentiality. Do your best to help everyone feel comfortable and respected in the environment.

Establish Rapport and Open Communication

  • Set a positive tone: Begin the conversation by establishing rapport and emphasizing shared goals and interests. Highlighting existing areas of alignment and mutual benefit are a great way to lay positive foundations.

  • Active listening: Practice active listening throughout the conversation, which means listening to understand rather than waiting for your turn to talk. Demonstrate empathy and understanding by paraphrasing and reflecting back what you're hearing. Validating any emotions and perspectives shared will help to build trust.

  • Encourage open dialogue: Create space for everyone to express their viewpoints and concerns openly and respectfully. Avoid interrupting or dismissing others' perspectives, and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak.

A wall with holes in it with the words, "Clearly articulate the issues at the heart of the conflict focusing on specific behaviors and their impact or actions and their outcomes."

Identify and Clarify Issues

  • Define the problem: Clearly articulate the issues at the heart of the conflict, focusing on specific behaviors and their impact or actions and their outcomes. For example: "You talked over your teammates during the team meeting, which prevented others from having a voice," rather than "You talk too much." Ensure that all parties have a shared understanding of the problem to be addressed. Acknowledge any conflicting agendas and perspectives within the group and create a safe space for honest dialogue and constructive debate.

  • Probe beneath the surface: Explore the underlying interests, needs, and concerns driving the conflict. Ask open-ended questions to uncover deeper insights, identify common ground, and develop more effective solutions.

Generate Solutions and Explore Alternatives

  • Shared solutions: Encourage creativity and collaboration by brainstorming a range of potential solutions that address everyone's interests.

  • Evaluate pros and cons: Assess the feasibility and potential impact of each solution, considering factors such as practicality, fairness, and long-term consequences.

  • Seek common ground: Identify areas of agreement and shared interests that can serve as a basis for compromise and collaboration. Look for win-win solutions that address the needs and concerns of everyone involved.

Negotiate and Reach Agreement

  • Facilitate negotiation: Guide participants through the negotiation process, helping them identify areas of flexibility and potential trade-offs. Recognize and reward behaviors that contribute to collective success and promote teamwork.

  • Seek and document agreement: Do your best to reach agreement on a mutually acceptable solution by encouraging compromise and a willingness to make concessions in pursuit of shared goals. Address any lingering concerns or questions to maintain transparency and trust. Document the agreements reached during the conversation, including specific action steps, timelines, and responsibilities. Ensure that everyone has the necessary support and resources to implement agreed-upon solutions. Communicate the rationale behind decisions with anyone who wasn't present, but is invested in the delivery or outcome.

Follow-Up and Monitor Progress

  • Follow-up: Follow up after the conversation to reinforce commitments and monitor progress. Check in regularly to ensure that agreements are being implemented and address any concerns that arise. Be prepared to adjust strategies as needed.

  • Celebrate successes: Recognize and celebrate successes achieved together through the conflict resolution process. Reinforce the value of open communication, collaboration, and constructive problem-solving in fostering a positive and productive work environment.

With this framework and the tips from last week's article on navigating emotions and feelings, you're now equipped with the tools for managing conflict in challenging situations, offering insights into understanding the root causes of discord, and fostering constructive dialogue.

Navigating conflict as a part of difficult conversations is a critical skill for effective leadership. By understanding the root cause of the conflict and implementing proactive strategies for resolution, you can foster a culture of open communication, trust, and collaboration and transform conflicts into catalysts for positive change.

As a leadership coach, I partner with leaders and teams to navigate conflict and get optimal results. Reach out today to set up a complimentary consultation!


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