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Plan Efficient Meetings: Managing Conflict

This lesson is a part of an audio course Plan Efficient Meetings by Igor Arkhipov

Heated conversations happen – and we all know it.

It is your role as a facilitator to ensure the conflicts remain professional and do not move into the emotional sphere.

Professional conflicts, also referred to as healthy debates, is a natural part of any business and are welcomed by organisations – this is how people bounce ideas and come up with better solutions. Arguably, a professional conflict is something that drives the business forward and fosters innovation.

However, it is often the art of facilitation that keeps the debate healthy.

It is important to differentiate between a healthy debate and a conflict in a room. Luckily, there are some red flags that can help understand what is going on.

In healthy debates, people hear the ideas of others. They listen then respond. And even when they don't agree, the participants focus on facts and stay objective, so there is a systemic approach to analysing the situation.

When the debate becomes dysfunctional, we are talking about an emotional conflict. And when this happens, people often assume they are right by default, without relying on any evidence.

In the emotional conflict, people often forget to wait for others to finish talking before stating their own ideas; no one is interested in alternative points of view. There is often no structure to the conversation, and people get attacked and blamed.

Your actions can determine whether people debate or argue. And there are some strategies you can employ to mitigate a starting conflict. An amazing book called Facilitating with ease by Ingrid Bens suggests the following process to manage conflict.

Step 1: Listening. Instead of arguing, let people listen to the opponent's main points. Let people vent their feelings. Look interested and concerned. Say things like: "You have made an interesting point... I'm not sure I understand it in full. Tell me more."

Effectively, you are getting the initiative, and you help vent the emotions out and let everybody get heard in turns. By pretending that you are the listener, you also get the rest of the audience to listen.

Step 2: Empathize. You need to build empathy between the participants. Let people know their feelings are understood. Say things like: " I understand this is important for you because… I understand how this looks in your eyes..."

Ensure people feel they are accepted in the room.

Step 3: Seek clarification. Delve deeper to ensure that you have a clear understanding of what people are saying. Summarize ideas and proposals, removing the heat and personal touch from them. State the facts. Say things like: "Let me see if I've got it straight; what you're saying is… If I understood you correctly, you are proposing we do the following..."

Step 4: Focus on facts. Remove the feelings. Make sure after this point, people discuss ideas and facts, not each other. A good technique to get control is to Seek Permission. When navigating between the points of view, ask for the permission of the audience to do it. Say things like: "Now that we understand your point, can we explore the other opinion?" "Unless anyone has questions, let's review another option?"

That will help you be on top of the conversations.

Step 5: Resolve the issue. Once the opinions are heard, and heat is vented, it is time to start finding a resolution. There are different strategies you may choose from:

You may choose to Avoid: ask people to pause the conversation and resume it next time. It is a good way to handle an emotional situation – you give people time to cool down.

Or you may push for accommodation: you ask someone to give in in a conflict for the sake of achieving a better goal. This may work when you feel that one side is not really interested in winning and is ready to accept another point of view.

Compromising is a bit better strategy: you help find a middle ground where everyone gets something and loses something. This is not the best strategy, though, as it leaves everyone with a feeling that they have lost a bit.

Finally, consensus: when using this strategy, you facilitate the group till they agree on a mutually beneficial solution. This may be the hardest strategy of all, though.

Depending on how well you know your colleagues, you may be able to anticipate the amount of resistance in the room. Consider what actions you are going to take before you speak.

Keep a list of possible motivational actions ready if you have to deal with a troublesome situation. However, when dealing with conflict, be as flexible as possible. Don't always use the same methods and tactics; if you do, people will anticipate what you are going to do and continue to misbehave.

Also, prepare a structured way for problem-solving. Make sure people follow the process – that will help them stay in a constructive debate area. E.g., a structured root cause analysis will help avoid blame and conflict when discussing an incident.

Quite often, the conflict starts when people discuss things that are not directly related to the meeting goal and are not on the agenda. Prepare a "parking lot" – an area on the wall where the parked ideas will live. This way, you acknowledge the importance of a conversation, you write the topic down and make it visible, but you avoid a conflict situation and scope creep for the meeting by explicitly asking the participants to discuss this topic another time.

Let me give you another task. Think about the last time you were in a meeting that converted into an emotional conflict. How did you or another facilitator manage the situation? How would you manage it now?

Until next time, thank you!

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Written by

Igor Arkhipov