In one of my last conflict management training sessions, I found the feedback from a participant exciting: “This is no longer a conflict discussion at all, but simply a project meeting.”
Participants often come to conflict management training with the expectation of being able to “switch off” their emotions in a conflict situation, or at least learn to deal with their emotions constructively.
First, Emotions are part of our daily lives and result positively from fulfilled needs (satisfaction, happiness, fun, etc.) and negatively from unfulfilled needs (e.g. anger, annoyance, fear, etc.). Emotions result from our perception and, therefore, cannot be “switched off”.
In conflict situations, we often have to deal with the perception of unfulfilled needs. And the more the conflict escalates, the more we get “tunnel vision” and only perceive the things about the other person that confirm or reinforce our current deficit situation.
Dealing with emotions in a helpful way
So, how should I address a conflict in such an emotionalised situation? Not at all! Addressing the issue on the way to the lift or at lunch “from the gut” is not helpful for sustainable conflict resolution.
A key point in preparing for a conflict discussion – after I have got a picture of all those involved and affected and have understood the history of the conflict – is to develop a list of issues that have developed on both sides of the conflict from the sound bites of those involved (“You’re incompetent”, “You’re always gossiping behind my back”) as a first step.
From dispute – to work topics
Then – and this is the crucial step – I turn these topics of dispute into work topics: “Dealing with each other”, “Working together in deadline-critical situations”, etc.) It is essential here that these work topics are formulated in such a neutral way that they do not arouse any resistance from the other party when they are invited to a clarifying discussion, e.g. via email: “I would like to talk to you about how we can deal with deadline conflicts in the future.”
In a further step, I think about what work topics could come from the other side, and am often surprised to realise at this point that there will probably be common ground.
This step of “transforming” from emotions to work issues takes time in training, as in real life, and is the foundation for making conflict issues discussable or negotiable.
At the same time, I always observe how attitudes and stances change during the work: the participants move more and more from an emotionalised stance towards fact-oriented work and develop solution options for their or the other side’s possible work topics in advance.
I then go into an agreed conflict discussion well-prepared, solution-orientated, or “ready to work”. When working with the options during the discussion, make sure that I do not dictate them to the other party but develop them together with them (“What do you think of…?” “Maybe we could try…?” etc.). Options are only helpful for the conflict resolution process if they suit both sides. Give your counterpart the feeling and the opportunity to contribute.
Moving from the issues in dispute to the work issues, I am putting myself in a resource- and solution-orientated position.
Nevertheless, the overriding principle is that conflict resolution is only possible if both sides want it, and the sooner you address a perceived conflict, the greater the likelihood of reaching a sustainable agreement.
Perhaps the conflict discussion is then really just a one-to-one project meeting.