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The Exchange

Four Tips for Having Conflict-Busting Conversations in the Workplace

By: Steven P. Dinkin

A long-time consultant is offended by something a new salesperson said on a conference call and is threatening to leave. And an employee in marketing is furious about being passed over for a promotion in favor of her co-worker and is trying to discredit her. These are just a couple of examples of the workplace conflicts that take up 42 percent of the typical manager’s time. The trick to moving past these conflicts and on to increased productivity for everyone at your organization is knowing how to broach the topics in a way that leads to improved working relationships.

Disagreements, disputes, and honest differences are normal in any workplace. When these normal occurrences are treated as opportunities for exploring new ideas about projects, they can become catalysts for increased energy and productivity. Getting to that place starts with an honest discussion.

That’s what my co-authors (Barbara Filner and Lisa Maxwell) and I explain in our new book, The Exchange, which supplies readers with proven tools for resolving emotionally charged disputes.

The Exchange itself is a four-stage, structured process specifically designed to encourage discussion of all the issues in a dispute—even the intense, emotional issues—in ways that are more productive than a gripe session. It derives from the conflict resolution model used successfully by National Conflict Resolution Center mediators for more than 25 years and includes constructive techniques to use in face-to-face meetings with disputing or disruptive employees. You can use this process to break down barriers—and to create changes that have a positive effect on your whole workforce.

It’s important to note that The Exchange was designed by mediators for managers. Managers learn a structure and skills similar to those mediators know and use, but it also takes into account managers’ responsibilities, both to their companies and their employees.

A key difference between managers and mediators is that managers are not expected to be neutral. They have the responsibility of reinforcing the interests of the department and the company for which they work. The Exchange teaches managers the right combination of skills and structure, as well as the finesse, to express the needs of the company.

The Exchange begins with you—the manager—and ends with employees meeting with the manager to develop effective solutions. Like most managers, you probably did not set out to be a conflict resolver. And you probably find it more than a little frustrating to be your company’s resident fire chief.

The Exchange teaches you to resist the temptation to simply tell people what to do. Actively engaging your employees in problem solving helps them take responsibility for the problem and for the solution. When you know how to address workplace conflicts properly, these challenging situations can lead to creative resolutions that re-energize the workplace and bring new ideas to old problems.

The following tips—excerpted from The Exchange—will teach you how to turn your next meeting with conflicting employees into a productive conversation.

Start with an icebreaker. Most people will be ready to complain, debate, or argue at the beginning of any conflict-based conversation. They have marshaled their most compelling arguments and are ready for battle. If you go straight to the topic of controversy, most people will quickly get stuck in defending their positions and attacking their opponents.

That’s why you need to do something different. The Exchange teaches that you should begin with an icebreaker. This is not just a light introductory activity. It is a way to non-confrontationally initiate a conversation about difficult issues. An ideal icebreaker asks for a person’s own take on something that’s both work-related and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two employees involved in the same project, you might break the ice by asking each of them how they became involved in the project and what they hoped to achieve.

Listen. Conflict resolution is tricky because too many managers ignore the fact that sometimes what they aren’t saying is more important than what they are saying. Often the best resolutions come from listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Being an active listener sends the message that you are genuinely concerned about him or her and the dispute. Put plain and simply, it’s the best way to get good information.

Ask an open-ended question. It can be as simple as, “So, tell me, what’s going on?” Then listen carefully to that person’s side of the story. You’ll know it’s time to insert yourself into the conversation when the discussion turns negative.

You can acknowledge someone’s emotions without seeming like you are taking his or her side. Especially at the beginning of talking about a conflict, you’re building rapport, even if it’s with an employee you’ve spoken with millions of times before. When there’s a conflict, you’re treading on new ground, and showing that person that you are willing to see his or her side of the story is how you will set the foundation for working toward a solution.

Use and encourage positive language. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but any frustrated manager knows how easy it can be to slip into negativity after a conflict has affected a workgroup. Always think before you speak. Use positive, easy-to-understand language. Don’t fall into repeating, verbatim, paragraphs from your company’s HR manual.

Remember, you’re having a conversation, not a trial. If you keep the language positive, whoever you’re addressing will likely mirror what you’re doing. Even referring to the department’s needs can be stated in very positive terms, which will lead to a more collaborative (rather than punitive) tone in the discussion. For example, if the manager says, “This has increasingly affected the entire team, and we need to address it so we can get everyone focused back on the project goals and having a comfortable working environment. I am looking forward to establishing a good working relationship between the two of you and improving morale for everyone on the team,” it will set a constructive atmosphere. When you keep things positive, you can work toward great solutions efficiently and effectively.

Work toward SMART solutions. Sustainable solutions are SMART solutions. That means they’re:

Specific: Be clear about who will do what, when, where, and how.
Measurable: Be clear about how you will all be able to tell that something has been done, achieved, or completed.
Achievable: Make sure that whatever solution you agree on fits the situation; that it complies with both the law and organizational policy; that everyone involved has the ability and opportunity to do what is required of them. Don’t set up anyone to fail.
Realistic: Check calendar dates for holidays and vacations; look at past performance to predict future actions; allow extra time for glitches and delays; don’t assume that the best-case scenarios will come true.
Timed: Create reasonable deadlines or target dates; include a few ideas about what to do if something unexpected occurs; be willing to set new dates if necessary.

Once you have your SMART solutions in place, immediately put them in writing. Putting solutions in writing is very important, and not just for legal reasons (and for covering your back). It’s a way to honor the work that you and your employees have accomplished. It’s also a way to keep people’s memories from diverging from the agreed-upon solutions. Verbal agreements have a way of being remembered very differently by different people—and then becoming the subject of another conflict. It’s safer and easier for everyone to have the solutions written down, in order to be able to easily verify them later.

Disputes, full of emotional complexities and interpersonal histories, are the headaches of the workplace. They’re always going to pop up, even in the most cordial of workplace environments. The good news is that when you’re armed with the tools you need to work toward productive resolutions, you and your employees can use them to strengthen your organization rather than harm it.


About the Author(s)

Steven P. Dinkin is president of NCRC. He received his law degree from George Washington University, where he taught a mediation clinic as an adjunct law professor. He has also taught mediation courses in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. For several years with the Center for Dispute Settlement in Washington, D.C., Dinkin served as an employment and workplace mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies. In 2003, he moved to San Diego to lead NCRC. His experience managing a talented and opinionated staff has contributed to the practical, no-nonsense approach of this book.

His co-author, Barbara Filner, was the director of training for NCRC from 1984-2010. She currently works as a consultant for NCRC. Lisa Maxwell is currently the director of the training institute at NCRC. The NCRC has provided mediation, facilitation, and conflict resolution training since 1983. Headquartered in San Diego, California, NCRC is one of the largest full-service conflict resolution centers in the United States. For more information: exchangetraining.com