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7 steps to managing conflict

Several years ago, when new to a position, I had a conflict with another employee. By strict interpretation of our policies, I was right in my actions, but I managed it very poorly. Shortly after that, the other employee resigned. It was a lack of experience on my part. I was more interested in being right than resolving conflict.

One of the lessons you learn early in life, conflict happens. Not everyone will agree with you all the time, or even some of the time. To be successful in life, you need to know how to manage conflict.

I’m not so glib as to expect there is some magic “7–step” solution that will automatically eliminate all your conflict. There are areas of disagreement –say personal beliefs– that may never be resolved. Some past actions, that have deeply affected your life, could require a therapeutic approach to resolve.

However, much of the day-to-day conflict you face can be managed with deliberate and clear communication. If you find conflict is getting in the way of your accomplishing what needs doing, try these steps:

Explain the situation as you see it

Invariably, conflict is about perception and understanding. Start by telling the other party your understanding of the situation.

Describe how it is affecting performance

Tell them how this conflict affects what need to be accomplished.

Ask them to explain their point of view

This can be difficult, but let the other party explain their point of view.

You may find that these first three steps provide enough clarity to resolve the conflict. If not, move on the the next four steps.

Agree on the problem

Reach agreement on the problem. You need a common understanding to develop a workable solution.

Explore and discuss possible solutions

Work together to develop a solution to the conflict. Both parties will stick with a solution they have had a role in developing.

Agree on what each person will do to solve the problem

Make sure you walk away from the session with a clear understanding of which party is responsible for what action.

Set a date for follow-up

Don’t leave it hanging. Get together to make sure things are on track. If the conflict is of a complex nature, you may need several follow-up milestones.

In the case of individuals in conflict, this process can work one-on-one. In more complex conflicts, or where groups of people are involved, a third-party facilitator might be needed.

How to Conduct Small-Group Meetings

One approach to ensure effective decision making in small, informal meetings is to develop motions and decisions through consensus. Consensus occurs when there is general agreement by the group on the decision being made.

Well managed meetings allow all participants to be part of the decision making process. Here are some techniques a chairperson can use to encourage and support group participation and discussion:

The chair solicits views

The meeting chair suggests that comments are welcome from the group and, if necessary, asks specific participants to share their views. Participants hear a number of short opinions rather than listening to one or two long speeches.

A survey

After a short discussion, the chair asks for a show of hands to determine support for proposed idea(s). This should help the chair determine how to proceed. This encourages participants to express an opinion.

Groups

Groups can be very useful in the decision making process at meetings and for generating new ideas from participants. The meeting divides into smaller groups, i.e. four to eight people, for a fixed time to discuss assigned issues. A person is chosen to record the conclusions of the group. The groups then report their ideas to the larger meeting. The alternatives that are generated will assist the meeting in resolving issues and making decisions acceptable to all.

Brainstorming

This is a procedure for generating many spontaneous and diverse ideas which can help to develop alternatives that will assist in resolving the issue being discussed and in coming to a decision. Guidelines for brainstorming are:

  • don’t criticize the ideas of others while brainstorming;
  • impractical suggestions may trigger practical ideas among other participants;
  • the more ideas, the greater the chance of developing a very good idea;
  • build on the ideas of others, improve on a previous idea or combine several ideas into one;
  • choose one person to record all ideas on a flipchart so that everyone can see them and a record exists; and
  • after a brainstorming session, critically screen the list of ideas for four or five consistent items or themes. Also, if brainstorming has been done in smaller groups, identify similar issues from the lists of individual groups. Finally, develop this short list of ideas into options for decisions.

Managing Conflict

Conflict arises in meetings. You might assume conflict is negative, but it can be helpful leading to innovation, positive change or agreement when discussing an issue. It is important to remember that disagreement is necessary to the process of group decision making. The chairperson may have to resolve conflict in a meeting in order to reach an acceptable decision.

The following are steps that are useful in resolving conflict:

  1. Recognize that there is conflict and identify the issue causing the disagreement.
  2. Collect all information relating to the conflict, share it and assess it.
  3. Propose possible solutions, including the consequences of the proposals.
  4. Find a mutually acceptable resolution without coercion.
  5. Carry out the agreement and evaluate its effectiveness, with all parties sharing in the evaluation.

If a meeting does get out of hand, take a short break. When the meeting reconvenes, the chair can summarize the discussion up to the point of conflict or have opposing sides summarize their respective positions. The chairperson can then attempt to lead the two opposing sides in negotiating a solution.

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