As the leader of the unit, my client Marina was called in to resolve a conflict between two team members. This one was especially tricky as it was between a senior team member and a junior one who had already escalated the issue to human resources.

Based on HR’s briefing, it looked like a series of unfortunate miscommunications and assumptions that led to the problem. If addressed earlier, the problem could have been prevented, but now both parties were entrenched in their positions and demanding apologies.

It was up to Marina to try and defuse the situation and she wanted to give it her best shot. So she asked me for advice on how to handle the meetings she was about to have with each individual. Especially the pitfalls she should look out for and how to handle them.

In case you might face a similar situation, I’ll share the strategies we discussed for handling those pitfalls well.

Here’s what we’re going to cover:

  • Choose your words wisely
  • Go with the flow
  • Get clear on goals

Let’s start with the first strategy.

Choose your words wisely

When you’re dealing with an already messy situation when people are on high alert and all too ready to take offence, it pays to choose your words wisely. That’s because the words you use can trigger a totally different reaction in others than what you intended.

As the founder of Conversational Intelligence® Judith E. Glaser often said, “words create worlds”.

In particular, when dealing with a tricky conversation, stay away from words that might sound confrontational or like you’re arguing. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a debate where both of you move farther away from a good outcome. 

For example, “why” and “but” are words we commonly use, but they can get you in trouble. “Why” can come across as accusatory.  So your innocent “why did you do that?” question can sound like “why on earth did you do something so stupid?” Especially to someone who’s already upset or defensive.

And “but” essentially says you disagree with what was just said. You could be negating a positive you’ve just stated (“you’re usually right, but in this case you’re not”) or disagreeing with what the other person has just said (“but don’t you see, that was….”). Either way, it’s not helpful.

Depending on the individual, there may be other terms you use innocently but that trigger the other person to get upset. Like referring to “ladies” when they prefer “women”, or downplaying the seriousness of their complaint by saying they’re “blowing things way out of proportion” when it’s all they’ve been thinking about for weeks.

So think about what those words and phrases might be ahead of time and choose the words and phrases that won’t derail the conversation.

Which brings us to the next strategy.

Go with the flow

It’s tempting to feel like you need to find the solution on the first conversation. This may happen, but it may not. When you think you must get to done in one meeting, it puts a lot of pressure on both of you to come to a conclusion.

But conflicts are inherently messy. You might need to give the person time to let things sink in. And you might need time as well. Be okay with having this be the first in a series of conversations. When the conflict has been brewing for a while, it will take a while to resolve.

So go with the flow and if you can’t tie things up with a neat bow in this one meeting, leave the door open for continuing the conversation. Don’t force an unnatural conclusion that the other person might not feel good about. No lasting improvement can be achieved that way.

This brings us to the third strategy.

Get clear on what success looks like

In these kinds of conversations, it’s important to set some guideposts for yourself on where you want to head.

When you’re not clear on what your goal is and why, it’s hard to know when you’ve achieved success. And that’s a temptation to keep going beyond the optimal point where you do more harm than good.

Having goal clarity also allows you to formulate the right questions to ask during the meeting to keep things on a constructive path and to decide which direction to probe.

For example, Marina’s goal is to help the parties return to a constructive working relationship. So if her team member says his goal is to get an apology from the other colleague, which may not happen, she’ll know to keep probing for his other broader goals.

Just as understanding how each party defines success provides Marina more scope for an achievable resolution, you’ll also want to find out what each party’s goals are and how they define success as well.

But what if your goals and theirs are not aligned?

Like their wanting an apology while you want a high performing team. This is where you need to find the common ground. One way to do this is by digging deeper to uncover their bigger underlying goals beyond what they’ve initially stated.

When you tap into someone’s bigger aspirations, like having a successful career at the company or making a meaningful contribution in the field, you’ll have greater scope for finding a way forward

As long as the goals aren’t mutually exclusive, you’ll have something you can work with. Most of us want to feel seen and heard, you’ll be doing something positive by simply having the conversation and hearing them out.

Just don’t make the mistake of going into the meeting unprepared

And the most important preparation is making sure that you’ve taken care of your own needs before stepping into the meeting.

If you’re hungry, angry or distracted, you won’t be at your best. That means you won’t be able to be present during the conversation and may miss key nuances or try to close down the conversation before it’s time to conclude.

You’ll also be more likely to say things in a tone that makes things worse rather than better because your mind and attention are somewhere else.

So make sure you’ve taken care of your needs physically and mentally before you start the meeting. Whether that’s eating, taking a bio break, shaking off the stress of the morning or letting go of your preconceptions of the situation, put yourself in the right headspace to have the conversation.

If that means postponing the conversation, then make sure you explain. The other person may have been waiting anxiously to speak with you, and an unexplained postponement is likely to lead them to assume the worst.

How will you prepare?

So when you have to defuse a conflict at work (or at home), make sure you’re prepared by using these three strategies to avoid the common pitfalls when you’re having conversations with the parties involved.

  • Choose your words wisely – avoid “trigger words” that could accidentally get the meeting off track
  • Go with the flow – don’t put pressure on yourself to resolve the issue in one conversation, leave the door open to speak again
  • Get clear on goals – tune into what success looks like, for you and for them, so you’ll know when and how to steer the conversation and keep it on track

Which of these strategies will most help you when you’re having conversations to defuse a conflict between team members?

Leave a comment and let me know.