Effective Solutions for Team Conflict

No matter how skilled you are in getting along with people, you aren’t going to get along with everyone all the time. The bottom line is that whenever people spend a lot of time together, conflicts are going to arise.

Conflicts at work can be tough to handle because you don’t have the same comfort level you do when problems occur with your family or friends. At work, it is important to maintain composure and self-control; people who do so are viewed more positively by their co-workers.

If you are uncomfortable facing conflict, you are not alone. Most people feel uncomfortable when dealing with any conflict, especially when it occurs in the workplace. We often ignore these situations, hoping the problem will go away. The bad news is that ignoring conflict will only allow it to grow, often becoming unmanageable. If left unresolved, conflict causes employees to become disgruntled and bitter, it causes relationships to break down, customers to quit doing business with you, and members to leave your club.

When you arm yourself with the skills to meet conflict head on and work quickly and effectively to resolve problems, you will gain respect as an involved leader who is committed to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Learn the steps below to resolve conflict in order to maintain strong, cohesive and productive relationships with others.

View every conflict as an opportunity. Conflict is a natural component in all relationships and should be welcomed. No matter how hard you strive to keep your work environment positive, problems are going to occur. Richard Selznick, a psychologist and author of The Shut-Down Learner, says, “Without resolution, resentments stay below the surface and magnify. When conflict resolution allows for good discussion, those involved can begin to move ahead.” Good discussion clears up confusion, channels positive energy, boosts confidence, improves the cohesiveness of the employees and opens the door to resolution.

Conflict arises when there is poor communication, a misunderstanding or a disagreement between people. Someone may feel slighted, left out of the loop or unfairly treated. In high-producing teams, conflict often comes about when people are creative, productive and passionate about their work. Tom Sebok, director of the Ombuds Office at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says, “Almost any team is likely to view a situation from different perspectives, which can lead to conflict. Recognizing this and encouraging discussion of different points of view can help groups make more thoughtful and informed decisions.”

Think about this: Without disputes, people might become bored, complacent or stagnant. When you view conflict as an opportunity, you will look for resolutions that allow for growth and development. Effective resolution gets people back on track, opens the door to creative thought process, and paves the way to open, honest communication. 

Anticipate problems and deal with them immediately. In any conflict, someone must take ownership of the issue and work to resolve it positively. If you are the one taking ownership, there is another element of conflict resolution: the time factor. Once you become aware of a conflict, you do not have the luxury of time to wait and see what will happen.

Learn to be on the lookout for problems, and resolve issues when they are still manageable. Become an active observer and communicator; stay involved and watch for things that are not right. Ask your team members, co- workers and friends to tell you when a problem is brewing. Be aware of co-workers who suddenly become negative, quiet, agitated or upset, as this is often a sign of conflict. 

Communication is key to resolving conflict. Miscommunication is often at the root of arguments, so it makes sense that good communication is the key to resolving them. Resolving conflict effectively is as simple as 1-2-3: 1 – Listen and Question; 2 – Decide and Plan; 3 – Respond and Resolve.

1. Listen and Question. Before attempting to draw conclusions or make decisions, listen carefully to all sides. Sebok says, “Listening gives you the best chance of understanding another’s perspective. You don’t have to agree, but it almost always helps to understand someone else’s perspective. Also, listening helps people to feel both safe and understood, and sets the stage for a more constructive dialogue.”

Allow everyone, individually, to tell their version of the story. An effective way to approach this, adds Selznick, “is to stay away from ‘you statements.’ It’s more honest to focus on ‘I statements.’” Seek information by using non-judgmental words and phrases, such as I noticed…, I feel that…, or I need to talk to you about something that concerns me. Follow up by asking questions to enhance your understanding.

Pay attention to the non-verbal messages you are receiving – and those you are sending. People are going to be emotional when talking about the conflict; observe the message behind the words. Is the person angry, hurt or embarrassed? What is the person really telling you? Be aware, also, of the signals you send out. Show concern in your facial expressions by maintaining eye contact and don’t frown, laugh or send other improper messages.

2. Decide and Plan. When you are confident you have enough details to work toward resolution, take time to think through the situation before deciding how to respond. It may help to rest the problem for a short time so you can make the best decision. When you have drawn your conclusion, plan what you will say when meeting with the person or the group. Think about how those involved are going to respond to you. Who will be confrontational? Who will refuse to take responsibility? Who will be passive and give in? Plan how you are going to answer these responses.

Include in your planning who needs to be at the resolution meeting and where the meeting will be held. If the conflict is between two people, you most likely do not need to involve your entire team to resolve the issue. Find a private location for your meeting.

3. Respond and Resolve. The most effective way to resolve conflict is to allow those involved to jointly reach consensus. There will be times, though, when you must make the final decision for your team. In either situation, resolution occurs when you can find a win- win solution where all involved feel valued and can accept the solution.

If your role is to facilitate the discussion and guide your co-workers to reach consensus, make sure all members are present when you meet to resolve the issue. Describe the problem and ask for ideas to resolve it. Sebok makes two important ground rules in mediation situations:

  • No interruptions and no button pushing through insults or personal attacks.
  • Focus on the solution rather than the problem.

When you encourage everyone to offer their suggestions and analyze the consequences of each, you will be able to stay focused on the issue at hand and find the best resolution.

As the group leader, show that you value each person involved in the dispute by displaying interest, care and concern. Incorporate positive words, such as, That sounds good; I can see you’re trying hard to find a solution. Or I’m glad you thought of that. Such words can help the mending process.

Work toward consensus and a solution that everyone can buy into. When complete agreement is not possible, make sure everyone accepts the outcome before ending the meeting. If tempers flare, or if you cannot reach agreement, give everyone time to calm down by adjourning and meeting later. If, after meeting again, it is still impossible to reach group consensus, you may have to make the final call in order to move forward.

In the event that you are the decision maker, Selznick stresses, “It will help to begin by saying something like, I’ve taken all of your opinions into consideration, but ultimately someone has to decide. It’s not an easy decision but I’m going with X. The important point is to let everyone know you listened to their view.” Sebok feels that it helps to tell the group that this is not ideally the way you like to make decisions.

After saying that you listened to everyone’s view, gain consensus that each person understands your reasoning. This step is crucial to resolution: Even though some might not agree with your decision, helping them understand where you are coming from and why you came to that conclusion should help them buy into the solution.

Always remain calm and in control. If the issue does not directly involve you, it should be easy to stay composed. What happens, though, when you are involved in the conflict and have trouble controlling your emotions? When this happens, maintaining self- control and objectivity is an unrealistic expectation.

According to Selznick, “We often think that just because there’s a stimulus we don’t like, we have to instantaneously react. You can learn not to be so reactive. My suggestion is to back up, take a deep breath, and consider your response.” Learning not to be reactive will help slow your racing heart and racing thoughts. Make it a rule to always take time to think through a situation. If you have to, walk away rather than lose control of your emotions. This will keep you from saying something you will regret.

Sebok puts into practice three calming strategies: physical, self-talk and visual. “Physical techniques include deep breathing, drinking water or tensing and relaxing your muscles. Self-talk techniques involve recognizing your own negative self-talk that makes you upset, and substituting those messages with more rational thoughts. Visualization techniques involve things like imagining that the other person’s comments are flying past you and hitting the wall. The point of these techniques is to reduce the intensity of emotions you are feeling so you can regain control and use your best conflict management skills.”

Even if you are not involved in the conflict, you may still get caught up in the emotions. When dealing with an angry or upset person, your reaction may be to emulate the person’s emotions, become defensive, or downplay the event.

Before reacting, allow the person to vent. Notes Sebok: “One of the best strategies if others become angry or defensive is to listen. The natural temptation is to interrupt. Listening respectfully in this situation can help an angry person calm down.” When it is your turn to respond, remain patient, calm and in control of your emotions.

If the person appears to be losing control, maintain your composure and speak in a calm voice. Say something like, I can see that you’re really angry. Let’s take a walk so you can compose yourself. When you can talk about this calmly, I’ll do everything I can to help you. Acknowledging that you are going to help should enable the person to calm down.

If the person speaks or acts inappropriately, focus on the behavior. Stress why it is inappropriate and assure that you will help. I’m going to help you resolve this but I need you to stop yelling. Customers might hear you, and that is unacceptable.

One final thought on this subject: If you find yourself in a situation where someone intimidates or threatens you, ask for help or get away from the person. Never remain in a situation in which you feel threatened.

In conclusion, handling conflict – whether it involves an unhappy customer, a problem performer on your team, a club member or a disagreeable co-worker – is not an easy skill to master. Sebok offers the following advice: “When you recognize your new strategies and skills begin to result in positive outcomes, your confidence grows. Anyone who has tried to learn a new skill will tell you that you have to allow yourself to feel uncomfortable and make mistakes. Learning to manage conflict well is no exception. Getting good at it takes both patience and practice.”

As your confidence grows, others will see you are a person of action and will respect your forthrightness and leadership. Whenever you can, allow others to become part of the solution and when you can’t, discuss the reasons behind your decision. That is the key to maintaining strong relationships, and strong relationships can weather any conflict.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about conflict resolution? Try Resolving Conflict (Item 321), offered by Toastmasters International. 

Renée Evenson is a writer specializing in organizational psychology. Her latest books, Customer Service Training 101 and Award-Winning Customer Service, are available in bookstores, online sites or at www.reneeevenson.com.