To resolve conflict, managers must separate facts from emotions


Confronting and resolving conflict can be an unpleasant affair. So unpleasant, that some managers will either avoid a problem or intervene without careful preparation, just to get it over with. 

Conflict is an inevitable part of any work environment. Some conflicts between employees will resolve themselves and some may even produce useful competition or change. But most conflict shreds the cooperative fabric of the workplace and diminishes productivity. 

Dear Joan:
Two employees of mine have been in a fight for two weeks. They are barely speaking to each other, and now one to them appears to be trying to get some of the others on her side.

Their fight is about some comment one appears to have made about the other. The accused employee denies such a comment. 

I have spoken to each of them and then brought them together for a talk, but it didn't do too much good. It is beginning to affect everyone, and others are complaining. I would hate to lose either person because they are normally good workers. 

I thank you in advance for any advice you can give me. 

Your goal is not to make them like one another but to be able to work together. You will need to reduce the emotions and get to the facts.

Do Your Homework
Prepare yourself with as much factual knowledge about the problem as you can. Look at how productivity has been affected. 

Your approach has been correct so far. You've spoken to each employee separately and then together to attempt to settle his or her differences. You didn't mention the quality of their relationship before this conflict arose, but I am assuming it was reasonably amiable and professional. 

Get Emotionally Prepared
You will need to be impartial, even-tempered and fair.

Both parties probably will be attempting to win you over to their side by building their case and by blaming the other. They will look to you for subtle signals, like the amount of time you allow each person to speak or any expressions of empathy on your part, either verbal or non-verbal. 

The day you choose to meet with them is the day they should be notified of the meeting. This will limit the amount of time they have to arm themselves with more accusations or build defenses. 

Open the conversation by stating your concern about the problem. Tell them it is affecting their performance. 

Never attempt to humiliate them into a resolution. Comments like, "You're both behaving like children," or "You both have really disappointed me" sounds parental and condescending and only create further resentment. 

Two consultants with McGraw Hill, Inc. David Engler, General Education Media, and Lester R. Bittle, author of "What Every Supervisor Should Know," suggest that you: 

  1. Ask each person to explain his or her account of the problem. Each version is likely to be laced with emotional interpretations and assumptions. Do not let either party interrupt while the other is talking or you will have an "I did not!" "You did too" free-for-all. Instead, say something like, "Jane, you will get a chance to talk in a moment." 
  2. Ask each employee to state the other’s view of the problem. This may be difficult for them to do because they have been too busy mentally arguing and defending themselves while the other person spoke. Asking each of them to put into words what the other's views are can have a calming effect. 
  3. Ask each to confirm the accuracy of the other’s restatement. Simply say, "Charley, is that what you said?" Each person needs to feel heard before you can move on. 
  4. Ask each in turn to focus on the facts of the problem. If either one begins to stray into hearsay or interpretation, calmly but firmly restate that it's important to stick to the facts. This will create a more problem-solving climate and keep the mud in the buckets. Here you will need to listen very carefully to make sure you are getting a clear, detailed description of the problem. Allow no generalities.
  5. Ask each to suggest solutions. By this time, you may have mentally settled on your own solution. Resist the urge to steer them in that direction or impose your own ideas. Listen open-mindedly to their suggestions since they will be more committed to solutions they come up with on their own. If their solutions are impractical, unacceptable or not forthcoming, you must offer your own opinion and solution. Offer any support you can to make the solutions work.
  6. Ask each of them to restate what they have agreed to do. This eliminates any misunderstandings. It's also a way to create a more binding agreement.
  7. Set up a follow up meeting before they leave. This progress check creates a sense of urgency and lets them know you're serious about ending their conflict once and for all. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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