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Anna Shields



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How can you defuse workplace conflicts? Part 2


In Part 1 of our series on how to manage workplace conflict, we looked at how to open the conversation, as well as two core workplace mediation skills: listening and playing back the issues. In part 2, we explore how to use conflict resolution skills to highlight choices, support decision-making and handle potential roadblocks.

Highlighting choices for moving forward

The parties face a number of choices as they navigate their conversation. These choices include:

  • What do you wish to speak about?
  • How do you wish to communicate with one another?
  • What would help you have a more effective conversation?

Highlighting choices typically involves two parts: playing back something you have observed in the conversation and asking a question about what the parties wish to do.

For example, a workplace mediator may say: “The word ‘professional’ seems to be very important to you – would you like to say more about what that word means to you?” The purpose of beginning with a reflection or summary is to demonstrate that your questioning is driven by the parties’ train of thought, not yours.

Tone of voice

Your tone of voice is also very important. When highlighting choices, your tone should ideally indicate that the parties are free to reject these choices and suggest others if they prefer. Try also to pay close attention to the speakers’ reactions. Their body language may convey that they do not wish to continue that particular line of thought, which is a cue for you to back off.

Don’t ignore the logistics…

There are also choices the parties face related to the way they have their conversation, for example, the timing of breaks or seating arrangements.

These issues may have been raised at the beginning of the conversation e.g. “You mentioned that you would like to take regular breaks and we’ve been going for a long time. Is now the time for a break?” Or the issue may first arise when the conversation is already in mid-flow, in which case remember to include an observation which explains your intervention, e.g. “You seem tired, would you like to take a break or are you ok to carry on?”

Through this skill of highlighting choices, you are helping the parties feel in control of the conversation they are having right now. The next level of choices the parties face is about their future.

Supporting decision making

At a certain point in the conversation, the conflicting parties will hopefully reach a breakthrough in understanding each other as well as themselves. From here, they may wish to establish some agreements about how to work more effectively together in the future.

A good way to start is by highlighting the change that has taken place with a summary, e.g. “I notice there’s been a shift in the conversation. You’re no longer discussing what has happened. Instead, you seem to be talking more about the future.” If the parties agree with your observation, you can then highlight some of the ways they might proceed.

In workplace mediations, many parties choose to keep a written record of their agreement and, although this is not a formal mediation, the parties may want to capture something in writing. You can offer to write this up, as long as you are careful to use their words and check with them both that they are comfortable with the final wording.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for you as facilitator during this stage is not to slip into manager mode. You may feel a strong urge to take charge, to propose headings for the action items and so on. But to do so would risk pushing the parties back into passive mode at the very moment when they should be taking the reins.

Self-control is essential if you wish the parties to reach a self-determined outcome. Another essential quality at this stage is patience. You may notice the parties back-tracking into conflict mode. If so, stay with them. Keep listening and playing back what you see.

They will know when they are ready to resume their decision-making. By firmly respecting the principles of impartiality and self-determination, using patience, humility and self-awareness, you are giving the parties probably their best chance of reaching an outcome that works for them.

Dealing with roadblocks

A roadblock can emerge at any point in a conflict conversation and in many different guises. It could be that the parties simply grind to a halt and the room falls silent. It could be the opposite, with both sides shouting at one another unstoppably. The list of potential roadblocks is endless, but as facilitator, you have three powerful tools at your disposal.

  • Step 1: Listen. Focus all your attention on understanding what the parties are trying to express. Notice these things without judging or trying to work anything out. Make sure you pay attention to both parties equally – just because one is crying does not mean that they are more in need of your attention than the other.
  • Step 2: Play back to the parties what you observe. You will need to be particularly sensitive to timing at such moments, so you may wish to check with the parties before launching into what you have to say.
  • Step 3: Highlight the choices the parties face regarding what happens next. This can include reviewing the options that have already been mentioned, pointing out any apparent conflicts if appropriate, or referring back to the ground rules agreed earlier. You will need to fiercely resist the urge to solve the problem for them, leaving space for the parties to make their own decisions. This way, it is far more likely that the parties will follow through with the decisions, than if decisions are imposed on them by you. By repeating these three steps as many times as necessary, even the most imposing roadblock stands a chance of being dismantled.

The hallmark of Consensio’s approach to conflict management, is party self-determination. Whilst this approach may not produce the fastest resolution, we believe it offers the parties the best chance of moving on from the conflict, with a new understanding of themselves and one another. And in the process, they will hopefully have learnt a new, more empowering way to overcome their future communication challenges.

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Anna Shields


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