The Six-Step Method for Resolving Conflict

Norb Slowikowski / August 2016

There’s no escaping conflict in the workplace. It’s just a part of doing business. So the choice becomes about how we react to moments of friction. We can either let it fester and bog down the overall operation, or we can get proactive and come up with a solution.
A few months back in my previous article, “From Conflict to Collaboration,” we looked at some general approaches to conflict situations. The best style in maneuvering through conflict is that of collaboration. If we can get to that endpoint, everyone is better for it, and productivity can come to the forefront where it belongs.
There are more specific steps we can take when it comes to resolving conflict. Let’s take a look at the Six-Step Method for Resolving Conflict.
1. Define the problem. Before we do anything else, we need to ask ourselves: “What is the real underlying issue here?” Investigate in order to identify the triggering causes of the conflict at hand. So, step one is to collect all available information from the parties involved. Most importantly, be specific. Avoid generalities at all cost. In order to define a problem, we need to be exacting about its cause. If we don’t get to the root of the situation at the very beginning, we will end up wasting our time, creating further conflict down the road.
2. Come together and communicate. Each person involved in the conflict needs to be given “air time.” Conduct a meeting in which they can voice their concerns without being interrupted. Once they lay it out on the table, questions may be asked. But step one is to listen attentively. Make sure you hear their entire version of events before judging or making any decisions.
3. Establish relationships. Even though we begin at odds with one another, the ultimate goal is to build open, honest two-way communication. Just because we start in argument doesn’t mean we can’t break through to trust. In order to do this we must maintain respect for the other person. A mediator needs to keep this atmosphere of deference in mind as well. Don’t let things get out of hand with screaming and yelling. Encourage listening at every turn, even if they don’t agree. The goal is to eventually satisfy each person’s needs. It’s not “us against them,” it’s “we.”
4. Develop an action plan. This is the real key. After you’ve hashed out what the defining issues are and communicated grievances, it is important to have everyone involved in the solution. Each person should suggest a reasonable solution that will let everyone walk away at least somewhat satisfied. We’re never going to get everything we want, but if we can brainstorm some concrete takeaways for people, they will have investment in the solution. This isn’t a “zero sum” game.
5. Gain commitment. Once you have a mutually agreed upon solution or action plan, conditions for follow-through must be set. The words “I’ll try” should not be a part of our lexicon at this point. That’s not good enough. “I’ll try” means you basically won’t. Instead, let’s get to the phrase “I will.” That way there’s no gray area. We need to walk away with something concrete so that the situation doesn’t keep coming up. Create a deadline specifying the date and time for the actions to be completed as well. This gives all parties involved something to work toward. Again, it’s not an esoteric idea; it’s about taking action on a mutually agreed upon plan. Stick to the plan, and use it as the guideline.
6. Provide feedback. Establish a follow-up meeting where both parties will get back together to measure the results. Did everyone do what they said they would do? Is each person sticking to the agreed upon plan, or did other barriers creep in during the intervening period? If so, those need to be dealt with immediately. Find a way to get back on track toward a final resolution. Be ready to step in and provide accountability, if necessary. Accountability is an especially useful tool once you’ve set up a conflict-resolution process. You can point to the process and the agreed-upon solution when delivering accountability. Each party was given the chance to fix the situation before punitive measures had to be taken. This creates an atmosphere of fairness as well.
Conflict resolution is not a simple or easy process. But just because it’s not easily attained doesn’t mean we should let a poisonous status quo persist. People at all levels must find a way to work together so that we cut out ambiguity and make resolution a step-by-step process. Make it simple for people and you’ll get better results.
Conflict resolution should be one part of a larger teamwork theme in the workplace. As a leader, you need to set the tone of inclusiveness and collaboration on a daily basis. That means working together in the most difficult of moments as well. Conflict is best resolved by focusing on mutually beneficial goals, by seeking areas of compromise, by sticking to the facts and by keeping personal/petty differences out of the discussion. Focus on the process instead of the dispute, and you’ll get the results you desire.

Norb Slowikowski is president of Slowikowski & Associates, Inc., Darien, Ill., To contact him, email [email protected].

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