Have you ever watched a conflict conversation on a reality TV show? If you have, you might have noticed that they almost always gravitate towards what people said, what people meant, why people did or did not do certain things, etc.
These conversations are heavily focused on what has already happened – the past. The arguing participants keep rehashing what has already happened and beating each other with accusations and blame. It seldom ends well.
I try to avoid watching too many of these conversations because I really don’t enjoy the negative energy generated by them. I have, though, watched enough of them to notice five things that almost all of them have in common. The participants generally talk about …
- What has already happened
- What went wrong
- What they believe to be the other person’s intentions or motivations
- How they feel
- What they want personally
I have seen most of these conversations end with broken relationships and damaged trust. While I have seen a few of them end reasonably peacefully, I don’t think I have seen any that actually built and strengthened a relationship because of the way that it was managed.
If you are a leader hoping to implement the ideas I shared in my previous post about Helping Your Team Move beyond Conflict to Resolution, you probably want to avoid the outcome of most reality TV show conflicts, and you would prefer to use the inevitable conflicts your team will experience as learning opportunities and chances to build relationships. Here are five focus areas that you can model and encourage in your team to achieve that goal…
Focus on the future rather than the past.
Honor the past (learn from it) and then turn to the future. When people turn their attention to how they would like to see things in the future and away from how it went wrong in the past, it helps them move from anger to resolution.
As a leader, keep your focus on the future. Discuss how you would like to see similar situations handled in the future. Ask people how they envision the future or how they would like the situation addressed the next time it occurs.
Focus on solutions rather than problems.
It’s relatively easy to focus on problems and look for blame. It takes work to find a solution that allows everyone to win. Keep your focus on successful problem solutions rather than on problem definitions. While I agree that you need to adequately identify both the problem definition and the cause, I encourage you to keep your focus on solutions. If you have a solution-oriented mindset rather than a problem-oriented mindset, you will find it easier to keep your focus on the future as well.
Focus on the business problem rather than the relationship problem.
One of the keys to success as a negotiator – and conflict resolution is definitely a negotiation – is to look for areas of agreement between the negotiating parties. If you can find an issue where the two parties agree, you increase the odds that you will reach a successful resolution.
If you focus on trying to solve the relationship problem, you will likely have difficulty finding a way to define the problem so that both people agree. If you focus on the business problem, you significantly improve the odds that you will find the unifying objective or “middle ground” that brings the parties together.
This focus does not guarantee that you’ll find an issue the parties can agree upon. You do improve the odds.
Focus on behaviors rather than feelings.
The feelings that people have about each other are generally driven by how people behave towards each other. Rather than focus on trying to fix the secondary issue – feelings – focus on the root cause – behaviors.
Behaviors are objective and observable. You can tell when they have changed or modified. Feelings are neither objective nor observable, and there is no real external measure to show that they have changed. As a supervisor, you can expect people to change their behaviors, but you cannot make them change their feelings.
Focus on organizational success more than on personal success.
In the heat of the moment and under the stress of rising conflict, people often become self-protective and defensive. As a result, they begin to lose their ability to focus on anything other than self-protection and survival. Your job as a leader is to help people see how their actions impact the larger organization and how protecting the larger organization ultimately helps them.
Focusing on organizational success is similar to focusing on the business problem over the relationship problem in that you are hoping to find an issue where both parties involved in the conflict can find agreement.
Keep you focus on these five areas. Model the behaviors that represent these focus areas. Encourage your team to do the same. And you can help your team move beyond conflict to resolution.
And here is another resource with powerful tips & techniques you can use to defuse tense situations and resolve workplace conflict!