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Conflict Resolution: How Successful Managers Move from Problems to Solutions in 4 Steps

Bob Martin

Many people in today's workplace have had little or no training in how to resolve conflict.  As a supervisor, do you sometimes feel at work you're the only "grownup" in the sandbox?  I've been approached at seminars by people who want to know how to get their boss to understand how they feel without causing them to become angry.  You may feel you could be doing a better job at your work if only someone wasn't standing in your way.   Employees who deal with customers often feel attacked and may respond inappropriately while trying to defend themselves.

These experiences are widespread.  In many workplaces there is ongoing, unresolved conflicts between individual workers, departments, divisions, between managers and employees, and between employees and customers.

Some Typical Examples
Jim and Kathy share adjacent workstations and little else.  Jim likes to play music while he works and takes time out to socialize between tasks.  Kathy would like to focus on the detail she feels her work requires, but doesn't want to seem like a "party pooper" by asking Jim to turn down his music and not talk to her so often.  Their supervisor often has to serve as a referee after Kathy snaps at Jim for some other offense.

Karen submits vendor invoices to Alice in Accounts Payable for payment.  Unfortunately, the payments are rarely made as quickly as Karen would like and she receives numerous calls from vendors regarding past due invoices.  Karen can't make Alice generate the payments any faster and neither of their supervisors want to get involved.

Kevin has been coming in late for work.  His supervisor, Tracy, knows their company has no specific policy regarding absenteeism and doesn't want to seem like the only supervisor who cracks down when people are late.

Chantal has just been promoted to supervisor but her boss often corrects her in front of her workers.  She's worried her workers won't respect her if this continues but is afraid to confront her boss.

What Does This Cost Us?

  • Loss of productivity while arguing
  • Loss of productivity while preoccupied with, and dealing with, the stress of conflict
  • Absenteeism due to stress-induced illness or avoidance of the situation or people involved with the conflict
  • Loss of supervisor's productivity while serving as a referee for employee conflict
  • Loss of employee productivity while feeling resentment toward supervisor
  • Increased exposure to lawsuits filed by employees who want to extract revenge upon a supervisor who they feel wronged them
  • Loss of customers who don't feel their complaints have been heard

The root of the problem
Many adults have had little or no structured instruction in dealing with cooperative resolution.  The few courses available dealing with communication tend to focus on delivering structured speeches or debate -- not the negotiation or cooperative resolution skills needed most throughout work and life

Most of our conflict resolution skills are developed through modeling how our parents, peers and other adults resolve their conflict.  The situation is that we have often learned from "amateurs" -- people who also may not have been particularly skilled at resolving conflict.

We also may experience certain time pressures while dealing with conflict in our everyday experiences.  Because of the pressure to get a particular problem "handled" immediately, we often fail to lay the groundwork to ensure the same, or similar, situation doesn't occur in the future.  We tend to punish rather than thinking proactively.

Because we feel a degree of emotional discomfort from the conflict, we also may focus on communicating our needs at the expense of causing the other person to feel their needs are not being considered.  This causes the other person to feel little regard for our needs, resulting in both parties contesting instead of cooperating.

Something to keep in mind
Questions about how to deal with people come up in almost every seminar I lead.   When I describe the following 4-Step technique, I often hear responses like, "Yeah, but I've tried that" (often before I've described all four of the steps).   That's the primary reason we offer half- and full-day seminars on this topic.  With the variety of conflicts we all encounter, and the many approaches we take to coping with them, seminars allow more time for discussion about how to modify techniques to apply to very individual situations.

Keep an open and flexible mind while reading the following steps.  You'll find that by doing so, you'll see more ways in which you can adapt the technique to reduce or eliminate many of the conflicts in your life.  You'll also gain valuable practice in keeping an open and flexible mind while dealing the wide variety of people you encounter.  What a great way to remain more proactive and less reactive on a daily basis. 

The 4 Steps to Cooperative Resolution
Begin by realizing that cooperative resolution is in everyone's best interest.  Since it is very likely you'll experience future conflicts with this same person, resolving the conflict in a way the other person finds agreeable will cause them to be more responsive to you during future conflicts.

Take into consideration it's in your best interest to avoid putting other person on the defensive.  If the other person begins to feel attacked or threatened, he or she will be less likely to listen to our needs and more likely to focus on protecting their own interests.

The 4 Steps

  1. Acknowledge the behavior
  2. Tell them how you feel
  3. Solicit feedback
  4. Solicit a "win/win" solution

Acknowledge the behavior
Tell them, without attacking, what they just did that caused a problem for you.   Use an even, non-threatening tone of voice.  Beginning with the phrase, "I noticed (behavior that just occurred)" can serve as a reminder to keep your tone of voice and body language as non-threatening as possible.  Remain focused on the other person's behavior as opposed to what you may have thought they were trying to do, or were trying to accomplish.

Tell them how you feel
Use an "I Statement" to convey how you feel about the other person's behavior.  "I Statements" tend to follow the format of "I feel (feeling) when you (behavior mentioned in step 1 above).  Do you best to assess the root emotion you're experiencing.  Be aware that many consider anger to be secondary emotion or response.  A deeper, underlying emotion like fear, hurt or frustration may be causing the feeling of anger.

Solicit feedback
Time to get the other person talking.  A typical feedback question would be, "What's causing this to happen?"  Other feedback questions may be formed from the 5 "W's" and "Y" questions (who, what, when, where, why and how).  Your goal is to find the other person's perception of the cause of their behavior.  Finding the cause of the other person's behavior will often provide you with valuable information you can use to determine how you wish to proceed. 

A secondary goal would be to cause the other person to feel heard and listened to.  If the other person believes you care enough to listen to their perspective, they'll often be more open to listening to yours.  This simple step can be the deciding factor in moving from conflict to cooperation.

Solicit a win/win solution
Asking the other person, "How can we avoid this in the future?" will help to involve them in the solution-finding process.  Gaining the other person's input for possible solutions can be helpful in causing them to feel emotionally invested in the outcome if one of their solutions is used (people tend to be reluctant to cause one of their own ideas to fail).

Lead this step like any other brainstorming session.   Initially, generate as many ideas as possible without commenting on the quality of any idea.  Single out the most plausible solutions that solve both your needs as a second step.

At times the other person may become reluctant to suggest possible solutions.  Remain insistent (without escalating your tone of voice) that a solution must exist and restate the same question, "How can we avoid this in the future?"

Here are a couple of examples indicating how the steps may look in real-life (text in bold indicates a step in the 4-step model).

Jody has been consistent in coming in late for some time now and her supervisor, Martha has decided it's time for things to change.  Martha approaches Jody in a neutral setting to avoid causing her to feel threatened and defensive.

"Hey Jody, I noticed you came in late 3 days last week."  "I have to tell you, I feel frustrated by that."  "Is there something I should know?"

Jody replies, "No, It's just been hard to get out of the house lately."

Martha solicits more feedback, "What's been going on?"

"Oh, my alarm clock isn't working right and the kids wouldn't get ready for school, then my cat bit my dog!"

Martha avoids commenting on any of the reasons Jody has given and moves to step 4 by asking, "How can we avoid this in the future?"   "Oh, I'll be on time" Jody replies.  Martha remains focused on looking for solutions, "I understand.  How can make certain these types of things or other things don't cause a problem like this in the future?"

If Martha's workplace has a written discipline policy in place, she can rely on that policy by pre-calling for Jody the step she'll need to take if the behavior continues.  She can also emphasize how much she would dislike having to take that step and to ask Jody to not cause her to have to take that step.   Now, Martha has emphasized that Jody will be the cause of any future discipline she receives.  This process can be repeated along each step of the discipline process.   You are at a distinct disadvantage if your company does not have a clear discipline process in place.

In the end
Since it is very likely that many people in today's workplace have had little or no training in how to resolve conflict.  It's in our own best interest to learn as many approaches to resolving conflict as we possibly can.  As a supervisor, we can prevent feeling like the only "grownup" in the sandbox at work by teaching our employees how to resolve conflict on their own.  We can share with our boss what we think, feel and need without fear of attacking them in the process.  We can perform better at our jobs by better conveying our needs to fellow workers.  And by using the communication tools we've learned, we can cause our customers, and ourselves, to feel less threatened when dealing with opposing needs

The steps to cooperative resolution are few and primarily require that we maintain more interest in the cause of the other person's behavior than we do in communicating our needs.  While progressing through the steps we:

  1. Acknowledge the behavior
  2. Tell them how we feel
  3. Solicit feedback
  4. Solicit a "win/win" solution

Among the many benefits we enjoy from using what may be a different response than we've used in the past, we'll also enjoy:

  • More productivity
  • A better work environment
  • Less absenteeism and employee turnover
  • Decreased exposure to lawsuits
  • And improved customer relations

Try this a approach a few times with minor conflicts you experience.   Recognize that many of us will feel uncomfortable at first when trying out a new approach and congratulate yourself at remaining open, flexible and willing to try new approaches to improve not only the experiences in your own life, but the experiences for all those around you.




Martin Seminars
12021 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 123
Los Angeles, CA 90025
310-820-4336 Phone
310-207-1216 Fax