Conflict is a norm in corporate life–whether it’s a peer, a boss or a direct report. It can also be painful and time consuming. But many leaders dread conflict so much they will do almost anything to avoid it. As trust erodes, people in conflict tend to pull back from communicating.
Usually that hurts everyone.
In reality more communication, not less, is usually the best approach. Caught early, many garden variety conflicts can be eased through open dialogue, candor, and a healthy dose of good listening. I’ve seen relationships at the breaking point that came back to a good place, just through honest feedback.
Here are some tips for de-escalating a conflict situation before it gets serious:
Have a face to face conversation.
You won’t resolve a real conflict through email. If anything, email drives more conflicts than it solves because the written word is so easily misunderstood. Emails lack facial expressions and vocal inflections that provide emotional nuance. They also prevent real-time correction of misunderstandings. Yet people hide behind email because it feels “safe.” Don’t do that! At a minimum, use video.
Prepare for the conversation.
Think through the feedback you have and how to share it. There is an art to giving feedback; one model I often use with clients focuses on behaviors, impacts, and the change you are requesting. Rehearse out loud before the conversation, you’ll be surprised how much more effective you become. Practice with someone you trust.
When you don’t trust someone it can be hard to talk about your feelings–there’s a risk they might take advantage of your vulnerability. But having the courage to be vulnerable is sometimes just what’s needed to break down a wall. Sharing authentic fears or making a heartfelt request for feedback can open the door to trust.
Speak the whole truth, but with care.
Often in these conversations people hold back crucial information, so progress is elusive. So think about, what is the hard thing you really need to say here? And say it. But don’t be completely unfiltered: accusations and name calling don’t help. Balance candor with some diplomacy.
Listen with everything you’ve got.
When you are on the receiving end of feedback, listen to learn. Your task is to truly hear to the bottom the other person’s point of view, not to argue or disagree. Try not to formulate a response in your mind, just take everything in. Listen for facts and feelings–and paraphrase them back. “Sounds like you see me as trying take over your job, and you feel frustrated. Am I hearing that right?”
Many teams have a norm to “assume good intent.” That’s wise, because the opposite leads to a spiral down the drain of mistrust and conflict. If I assume your intentions are bad I’ll start treating you differently, so now I am also eroding the relationship. Instead, check your assumptions by asking: “You interrupted me four times in yesterday’s meeting. I felt frustrated. But, I wonder what was going for you?” Cultivate curiosity, not judgment.
Addressing a conflict takes a lot of courage. And it takes skill and preparation. But ask yourself: are you really OK with the conflict continuing on and on, and getting worse? Everyone around you knows about the conflict whether you think they do or not. And they all are hoping you will fix it, because it makes their work harder. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your colleagues.