This week, I address another conflict resolution question that came from an audience member at a recent presentation. “Is it a good tactic to avoid the conflict while the things cooled down and talk about it later with a clear and open mind to others position?”
I believe the person is suggesting the ‘conflict resolution’ session be ‘avoided’ until things cooled down and not the conflict should be avoided. I don’t believe any conflict should be avoided, good or bad. It should always be managed, which may involve some type of intervention if it escalates.
As I was attempting to facilitate the resolution of a conflict between two clients, Mike and Frank, I had on a wilderness expedition it became clear to me this was not the right time. The conflict had been brewing for a few days and was gradually escalating in intensity. Their behavior was starting to affect the whole team, making everyone feel uncomfortable when Mike and Frank were around each other. As the leader, I knew their behavior couldn’t go on if our team was going to perform at its best, which would be needed to achieve our lofty goals.
I wanted to resolve the conflict so I brought the two guys together to run through a conflict resolution model (download a detailed description of the model). The first step in the exercise is the Ventilation stage, where both parties have an opportunity to vent all their frustrations by detailing the exact effect that other person’s behavior is having on them. It is important for each person to have as much uninterrupted time to speak, as they need to express their frustrations, emotions, and challenges.
When I sat in private with Mike and Frank to discuss the conflict, I offered them both an opportunity to vent all their concerns with the current challenge between them. As Frank started describing his side of the situation, Mike immediately tried to interrupt him, justifying his actions. Frank shot back with another concern about Mike’s behavior.
As I tried to get them to stop interrupting each other and calm things down, they began raising their voices and showed threatening body language, puffing out their chest and pointing. It rapidly became apparent that the timing was not right to try and resolve this conflict.
The major pitfall in the ventilation stage happens when the timing is not right.
For this stage to be effective, the person speaking cannot be interrupted. This can be challenging as in most cases at least one of the people is usually hearing information that they believe is inaccurate, that they have never heard before and which can be shocking for them, that they have a perfectly good explanation for and they want to defend themselves.
If a person is not emotionally ready to work at resolving the conflict, they will often feel they are being accused, attracted or even vilified in the ventilation stage. If either person is not able to finish their ventilation without being interrupted or having the other party shut down and clearly stop listening, the timing is not right to work on resolving this conflict and the session should be stopped.
Frank and Mike are clearly not ready to resolve their conflict at this time. The raw emotion for the clash was still too fresh to come to any resolution and both guys needed some time to calm down and reflect on the situation before coming together and having a rational conversation to discuss the issues at hand.
I abruptly ended our conversation, telling them to avoid each other until they are ready to address the situation. Personally, I also needed some time to rapidly come up with another tactic to resolve the conflict.
Later that day, I met with both of them individually and gave them time to practice venting to me without being interrupted. The following day, when they were both much calmer, I ran them through the conflict resolution model again with greater success.
Therefore, to answer the question above, yes, in general, you want to avoid trying to resolve the conflict until cooler heads have prevailed. However, there are a few other things to keep in mind when determining the best time to resolve a conflict.
- Don’t wait too long. Managing conflict can be stressful and challenging and often causes people to avoid it until it is long past a productive time to manage it. Past conflict often comes to the surface on annual 360o evaluations in the form of disparaging comments. If the conflict was dealt with at the right time, these comments and months of tension could have been avoided.
- Watch the agenda. Like it or not, everyone has an agenda. We are all looking out for ourselves. It’s human nature. Ideally, the conflict is resolved when it is best for everyone. In the example above, my own personal agenda as leader of the expedition played a role in trying to resolve the conflict too soon, when Frank and Mike were just not ready. Instead of wanting them to ‘get over’ their issues so we could move on to more ‘important’ and exciting challenges as a team, I could have done a better job in recognizing neither of them was emotionally ready at the time to discuss this conflict.
Conflict in the workplace can destroy good teamwork. When you don’t manage it effectively, real and legitimate differences between people can quickly get out of control, which can result in an irretrievable breakdown in communication and personal attacks. The conflict resolution facilitator must feel and know precisely when to recommend that the parties move part way on an issue, all the way, or not at all.
You’ll find that when people listen and explore the facts, issues and possible solutions carefully, you can resolve conflict effectively.
Action: The next time you try to facilitate a conflict resolution, ask yourself and both parties if they want to and are ready to resolve the outstanding issues. If the answer from anyone at that time is no, come up with another time and plan for the conflict to be addressed.
Until next time… Embrace the Adventure
Shawn Stratton is an international leadership and team building consultant, professional speaker, bestselling author and Ironman competitor.
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