Unresolved conflict causes more problems for leaders than almost anything I have observed in over two decades of leadership. For whatever reasons, be it their worldview, skills, the enormity of the issue or simply pride. Whatever the reason, resolving conflict is a critical problem leaders solve. The price that gets paid by low morale, poor productivity, unhealthy relationships and distraction from the mission simply isn’t worth it.
Be that leader who steps up and does their best to bring resolution to any conflict going on in your area of influence. It’s hard. And it’s worth it.
Bottom line. Well handled conflict is better than peace at any price. Ignoring a conflict isn’t really peace is it? Knowing it’s there and hoping it will go away by doing nothing just isn’t a game plan leaders sign up for.
Resolving conflict has three stages. Firstly knowing why we fail to resolve conflict. Secondly, preparing internally for any conflict resolution conversation and thirdly, having a ‘colour by numbers’ game plan to serve the artful side of conflict resolution. Having some practical and sensible steps when things go this way gives leaders like you much greater confidence.
There are at least seven reasons we don’t resolve conflict.
- You are afraid of being wrong.
- You fear we will make the situation worse.
- You are scared we will be rejected.
- You are not used to expressing emotions.
- You lack effective confrontation skills.
- You are a prideful narcissist who thinks you are always right and everyone else is wrong.
- You have the same problem in your life too!
Imagine you are heading into a conversation where you need to be the proactive one in resolving the conflict. You must win the INNER game before you launch and have the actual interaction. These reflections will help you find your true north for having the right kind of conversation.
- Have I clarified if the issue is personal? Organisational? Or both?
- Am I crystal clear on what I need the outcome of our conversation to be?
- Is the growth and development of this person my highest priority?
- Have I noticed that I am holding a grudge or ‘root of bitterness’ towards this person?
- Where specifically must I forgive this person before we speak?/li>
- Have I spent time in reflection on this issue?
- Have I planned out how the conversation will take place?
Bear in mind, you can’t control everything and this process isn’t claiming to do that. It’s designed to significantly increase your chances of the conversation going well. It’s doesn’t solve the other person’s response or reaction. None the less, still do it.
So, how do you have a conversation designed to resolve conflict? Here’s a colour by numbers. Remember, this is in a circumstance where you are initiating the conversation.
Begin with the end in mind.
Preparing for the conversation means being super clear on what the best outcome is for you both. Ask something like this
“Hey [name], thanks for sitting with me to work through this. What I’d really love to have at the end of this conversation is _________.“
“What specifically would you like as an outcome from this conversation?”
Listen carefully to the answer and launch from there.
Be humble and focused on resolution.
I call this next stage the Pastor Michael rule. He taught me to “lead with an apology” whenever you were having difficult conversations. It meant two things. Firstly, you take responsibility for what you have done to make the situation what it is and secondly, you lead by example when it comes to wanting to resolve. Say something like this.
“[Name] I wanted to start our conversation by asking for forgiveness for anything I might have done to make this situation what it is. Before we begin I’d like you to know I’m sorry.”
You’ll notice it takes a big sting out of the start of the conversation AND gets you focused on resolving the issue quickly.
Affirm the person, focus on the issue.
Unlike Harvey Spectre you are here to play the issue (Not the Man!) At this point you want to communicate that your commitment is to resolving the matter as best as possible. It could go this way.
“So [name], you’re a valuable part of this team and we appreciate what you contribute. Today is about solving __________ [name the issue]”
Seek crystal clear clarity on the issue to be resolved.
In last weeks post I said the one thing you must do is “listen with the intent to clarify the real issue to be resolved.”
That’s your next step in this process. Find out EXACTLY what needs to be resolved. It looks something like this.
“So [name], what specifically do you see as the issue that needs to be resolved today?”
Take the time to get as specific as possible. In Coaching terms, it’s called “chunking down.” Get to as much detail and as specific a focus as possible. You may want to ask “So when we resolve that issue will that resolve what most needs to be sorted today?”
There is a bit of back and forth here. You are leading the conversation, but you are also needing to remain flexible enough to get an alignment with the person you are talking to. It’s a speaking and listening piece. Both/And.
In this part, it’s also important to get clear on WHY resolving this would be good and what benefits there are from doing it well. A good question to ask might be:
“When we have thoroughly resolved this what will that mean for you?”
“Do I have your full commitment to resolving this today?”
If no, you need to keep exploring what has to be resolved to sort the matter.
This helps with the motivation to get to a resolution. It provides the evidence of resolution that you can celebrate together.
Ask for a commitment for behavioural change moving forward.
At this point in the conversation, you will need to lead courageously. This is about beginning to lead the conversation rather than just pacing with the person you are talking to. It also shifts the energy of the conversation to making things different and making them better. Ask this:
“What specific things can you do to outwork this resolution in the next month?”
That will help set the focus on change over time.
Offer your full support to make conspire for success.
In simple terms this affirms the step of being fully supportive of the person and continuing to serve the relationship and the reason why you are having the conversation in the first place. Ask this question.
“What do you need from me to make sure this issue is fully sorted?”
“How can I help this be a better than expected outcome for you?”
Establish and accountability and communication structure.
This piece is not intended to assume things will go badly, it is intended to create a game plan if there is any tension after the fact.
My belief is that it’s always better to have a plan for when things go right AND wrong. This is to ensure you continue the communication and the resolution that gets agreed upon. This question will help:
“In the unlikely event of this going badly after today what would be the most helpful thing you/I can do to get it back on track?”
“If I needed to touch base with you on this issue again in the next little while, what’s the best way to do that?”
These questions afford you the opportunity to pick the topic back up if there is any reoccurrence. Vitally important.
Patrick Lencioni says that conflict is defined as the “fastest way to the best outcome.” (My paraphrase) In my opinion it is the best definition of conflict around. Work hard at the hard conversations for the sake of the relationships you have and the outcomes you desire. It’s truly worth it.
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