We are often called in to consult in high-risk situations that have arisen due to ongoing conflict. An impasse has been reached, either because of the nature of the issue, or because of the individuals involved, or both. The issue has reached a point where it is causing undue interference to a smooth working environment, to the point that a third party is often needed for a "fresh" perspective, and to help break the deadlock
Although every situation is unique, we have found through experience some guidelines to be useful in defusing these situations so that a realistic and viable resolution can be reached. These guidelines are hardly specific just to what we do; they represent principles that can be useful in virtually any type of conflict.
First, it is important to enter with a mindset of wanting to understand the situation, as opposed to trying to "fix" it. Typically, when we enter into a conversation with an employee, we just begin by asking them for "their side of the story." At this point, we are not looking to refute or rebut them, or to provide any kind of answer or judgment; we just need to understand their perspective. Instead of asking "why" questions, we ask "what" questions. "What happened next?" "Help me understand..." And we ask a lot of questions, which in itself conveys a willingness to understand. We want the individual to tell his or her "story."
These "incidents" are often months, or even years, in the making. We want to find out how it all started from the individual's point of view, without judging or commenting on their version of the history (that may come later). When gathering this information, other factors or issues may come into focus. There may have been a previous history of conflict in a similar situation. The individual may be currently experiencing other stressors in or outside of the work setting that are contributing to the current matter.
Once the story and its background is understood, and once the individual believes that they have been understood, then and only then do we begin the process of seeking clarification or addressing inconsistencies. "You are telling me that this happened this way, but I was given information that it happened this way. Can you help me understand that?" Asking for clarification rather than directly challenging is more helpful, as it continues to covey a need to understand, as opposed to implying judgment.
Once we feel we have an understanding of the conflict situation from their perspective, we can then begin looking for strategies for resolution. How are they attempting to manage the conflict now? How is that working for them? What are their current support systems through the conflict situation? What are their next steps? How far are they willing to go (in whatever direction) to resolve the matter?
More importantly, we now have a better understanding of the underlying needs of the participants - as opposed to just their stated positions or demands. This understanding is critical, because we may be able to arrive at a resolution that addresses their needs, whereas we could not have possibly met their initial demands.
Finally, the most important step that is often left out is the follow-up. It is important to maintain communication and keep in contact with the employee in question, to make certain that his or her needs are being met. Conflicts are complicated, and resolutions seldom occur in one phase. All too often, we see situations where, after an initial flurry of intense interactions and interviews, the employee is not contacted, sometimes for weeks at a time. Everyone has moved on to something else.
Conflict resolution is often more about the process and the relationship than it is about the resolution. And it cannot be about winning. Many people are really good at fighting and being angry, so we have to remove them from a "battleground" that may be all too familiar to them. From the company's perspective, engaging someone in a win-lose endeavor is of little value anyway. It certainly is not that difficult for the employer to "win" as they are in the power position, but that kind of victory carries a cost. When time is taken to understand and build the relationship, even severe consequences can be imposed in a non-destructive manner.
J. Joseph Konieczny, Ph.D.