Whether you are a leader or a supporting member of a team, one skill that will smooth your way forward no matter the setting, objective, or stakeholders involved is the ability to manage conflict.
The usual approach to managing conflict is to wait until a spark ignites and then try to stomp it out before it turns into a full-fledged fire. Learning how to diffuse conflict once it has reached the toxic tipping point will always be an important pursuit for leaders. But just like with fire safety, when it comes to conflict management, a more effective approach may be focusing on prevention measures over becoming the actual firefighter.
Research shows that individuals on teams who feel seen and heard are generally willing to voice opposing ideas and opinions as this type of environment usually goes hand-in-hand with a culture that welcomes rather than penalizes free thinking. The key to fostering this type of space is building trust between team members. There are a million ways to go about doing that but the unifying theme across most is some type of process that quickly builds vulnerability.
So how do you get your team members to open up quickly?
An initial step to consider is scheduling intentional time to focus on building team rapport in a neutral setting when no big decisions are at stake. There are many different exercises you could choose from. The key is to know your audience and select one that fits well with your team culture. Rockstar Workforce shares one exercise in our Leadership Mechanics workshops called The 4 Questions. Leaders select 4 questions for participants to answer but instead of writing their answers down, they draw their answers to each and then explain their drawings to the rest of the group. This provides both the person sharing and the rest of the group an alternate focal point to share their responses and allows each individual to control how deep they go with their answers. The process works quite well if the leader starts first so that they can set the tone for the group and help clarify the expectations for the group.
Supporting your team through the ‘5 Conversations’.
A similar process featured in Harvard Business Review and devised by Fortune 500 executive coaches Ginka Toegleand Jean-Lois Barsoux is called the 5 Conversations. Just like it sounds, it involves a series of 5 30-minute conversations designed to help team members uncover different preferences and expectations surrounding how people look, speak, act, think and feel respectively. Each of the sessions begins with individuals beginning with “In my world, …….” statements which helps reinforce the idea that the source of the differences are not problematic but simply different preferences of being and doing. Each discussion uncovers where friction in collaboration is likely to occur and allows the group to devise specific solutions to proactively address potential conflicts.
No matter the vehicle you choose to establish trust within your team, time spent helping them build trust and intentionally recognize and appreciate differences will build the foundation they need to sustain healthy conflict and maintain a viewpoint that focuses on the merits of different ideas rather than tearing down the character of a person presenting an opposing viewpoint. Meanwhile, you as a leader can use the time you’ve bought avoiding the forest fire to gradually work at improving your competence over time in the challenging sub-skills required for conflict management when the spark does combust into a full flame.
Learn to spot behavioral tendencies, adjust your approach, and watch conflicts transform into constructive conversations with this guide.