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How the Best Leaders Resolve Workplace Conflicts

Disagreements among people in a workplace are common. When they're on your team, those disagreements have the potential to escalate into conflict between coworkers, creating a distracting, unproductive, and negative working environment. And if you're in charge, your staff's problems are your problems too. Many leaders believe resolving conflict is about simply saying the right thing. Those in charge have some perfectly crafted words of guidance (or warning) in mind. They believe if they just find the perfect, inspiring, impactful phrase, the problem will be resolved once and for all. They imagine a movie-like scene when they call the disagreeing individuals into their office -- either together or separately -- say a couple thoughtful, instructive things. Light bulbs suddenly flash over their heads and everyone says, "Oh, I get it. We're supposed to get along. Aha! Everything's good now." Of course, real life never works that way. Better than perfecting some speech about people learning to work together, a good leader playing the role of a mediator should consider another approach.

Ask questions. Asking questions helps you preserve your neutrality. Questions are also effective in getting others to pause, reflect, and get clear with themselves about what the problem actually is. Once you get people talking about the issue, they'll be more able to see their own way through to a solution. Good questions beat perfect statements every time. Having an arsenal of good questions handy helps you quickly get into the role of mediator. "Go to" questions also take the pressure off thinking of what to say or do in the moment. All issues are best dealt with as soon as all involved are calm. In most cases, it's best to start with one-on-one conversations to get the details of the issue from both perspectives. This is easier than inviting everyone into a group discussion when the facts are still unclear to you and crosstalk can happen. Once you have the basics of what happened and how long it has been going on, you can move on to asking more probing questions:

  1. What is the other person saying?

  2. How does what you've been hearing go against your values?

  3. What is the difference between your two perspectives?

  4. What aspects of this conflict do you believe you're responsible for?

  5. Can you put yourself in your coworker's shoes? How does she feel?

  6. If we were to think outside of the box, how could this issue be resolved?

  7. What will happen to you if this issue isn't resolved through this discussion?

  8. What would you offer to do or change to help resolve this issue? What would you like in return?

Recognize that there is no objective reality of the situation. Everyone perceives issues differently, but there will be concrete things that happened or didn't happen. By asking questions, you may get each person in the conflict to see things from the other person's perspective, thus bridging the gap between them. The problem is that most managers don't have the skills needed to properly mediate. They've never been trained or coached on how to address conflict effectively. They lack confidence in addressing problems head-on, and too often make matters worse by ignoring the issue, taking sides, or dictating the solution. By asking questions, you maintain an objective position outside the issue, while helping those involved to come to resolution. Your job is to constructively address conflict so employees can stay focused on their work. Your effectiveness as a leader is partly judged by your ability to address and resolve issues, so it's important to keep this mediation skill sharp.


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