How to turn conflict around and use it productively

Patrick Lencioni highlights fear of conflict as one of the five dysfunctions of the team¹. Team members striving to preserve an artificial harmony avoid or only half-heartedly conduct discussions where important opposing positions or points of view require to be aired and worked through. When this happens it often results in inferior decisions or outcomes which can negatively impact the performance of the team. It also can provide a poor role model for other teams in the organisation.  

So how do we turn conflict around and use it productively?
One approach which Paula Cook, facilitator and coach, introduces and uses quite often is facilitating people to understand different points of view using a perspectives exercise. It is a simple yet powerful way of helping people to understand that in any situation there are multiple perspectives or interpretations that one can conclude based purely on the position from which you are viewing the situation or the frame of reference you are using. By creating the opportunity to see this and also stand in the other person’s shoes, so to speak, to appreciate the elements of validity in the position that you may disagree with. This helps to increase understanding and appreciation and potentially the avenues to finding a productive compromise or solution to the conflict.

Another approach used by Andrew Mackichen, facilitator and team coach, is based on the work of Susan Scott which she has labelled “Fierce Conversations”². She labels the technique “mineral rights”. It consists of three steps:
1. Opening Statement
2. Interaction
3. Resolution

There are a list of elements that require to be included in the opening statement in order for the process to be effective. These include:
1. Name the issue
2. Select a specific example that illustrates the behaviour or situation you want to change
3. Describe your emotions about this issue
4. Clarify what is at stake
5. Identify your contribution to this problem
6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue
7. Invite your partner to respond

You see that this can be quite challenging as you do need to share your emotions about the issue and also your contribution to the problem. The critical piece is the last point – invite the other person to respond and listen.

This brings us to the Interaction step - Enquire into the other person’s view and actively listen to understand their position.
• Use paraphrasing and a perception check.
• Dig for full understanding: don’t be satisfied with the surface.
• Make sure that your partner knows that you fully understand and acknowledge his or her positions and interests.

Once you have understood the other person’s position you can proceed to the resolution step which is a joint effort.
1. What have we learned?
2. Where are we now?
3. Has anything been left unsaid that needs saying?
4. What is needed for resolution?
5. How can we move forward from here, given our new understanding?

And the final element of resolution is to make an agreement and also agree how we will hold each other responsible for keeping it.

How to handle conflicts in a changing world
Julian Jencquel, coach, facilitator and conflict mediator stresses the importance of bringing to the situation a number of skills that cannot be improvised.
• emotional agility,
• multiple-level communication (i.e. factual and relational),
• a good understanding of Social Conflict Theory  

So perhaps if the people involved in the conflict are critical people for the business and or the conflict has the potential to cause significant collateral damage it is worthwhile having the services of a professional mediator. This may be especially true when resolving the conflict has the potential to unlock significant benefits for the business. You can read more here where Julian gives an overview and some examples.

How can the PPI Network support?
We can equip your managers with conflict resolution techniques and or also provide professional mediation and conflict management coaching.


¹ The Five dysfunctions of a Team: A leadership fable. Patrick Lencioni. ISBN-13: 978-0787960759 ISBN-10: 0787960756.
² Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time. Susan Scott.

Managing Conflict
Conflict in teams

About the Author

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley is a Managing Partner of Performance Plus International (PPI) and a founding member of the PPI Network. He has a depth of experience in management development and training built up over many years, initially in Ireland, then in Africa and for the last 25 years in Europe based in Belgium.