Handling Conflict

April 26, 2017
Facilitating Conflict

You are leading a workshop for a Fortune 50 company on a matter of strategic importance.  The morning proceeds according to plan and the participants enjoy a collegial lunch.  In the early afternoon, conflict breaks out between two participants. They have a genuine difference of opinion on how to implement the strategy.  The group cannot proceed until the issue is resolved and the dialogue seems to be going nowhere fast. You can feel your stomach start to tense and your heart rate begin to accelerate.  What to do now?

This is a situation that eventually every facilitator faces.  Early in my facilitation career, a situation like this would cause me to run screaming into the night (or at least into the bathroom during the next break).   But now, I welcome conflict and see it as an opportunity to make real progress.   What changed?  In brief, my attitude and ready access to a few battle-tested approaches.

I welcome conflict and see it as an opportunity to make real progress.

The next time the conversation turns hot, try these:

Check your Focus.

As the conversation begins to heat up, what are you focused on?  Is your focus on yourself or your participants?

Early on, I became reactionary in the face of conflict.  Conflict was bad – something to be avoided.  I had to fix this…and right now!  I could feel my fight or flight mechanisms screaming to kick in. Inwardly, I worried about the workshop going off the rails.  What were the participants thinking about me since I am failing them?

With more experience, I was able to shift my focus to the group and their conversation.  I realized that healthy debate is essential to progress.  In fact, research shows that breakthroughs most often come through creative tension, and this often occurs in the context of debate.  I now welcome conflict as a friend—an opportunity to achieve new levels of understanding and progress. 

Shifting your focus comes with intention, mindfulness, and practice. 

Is the dialogue healthy?  

There is a world of difference between a debate and an argument.  One is healthy; the other destructive and dysfunctional.  

Gauge the tenor of the conversation.  Are people open to each other’s ideas?  Are they genuinely listening to one another and seeking to understand?  Is there a spirit of inquiry?  Or, are people advocating for their position while excluding other views, engaging in personal attacks, and talking over one another?   Your diagnosis of the situation enables you to prescribe a course of action.

Keep it healthy; make it healthy.  

If the dialogue is healthy, super!  Keep it that way.  Model reflective listening.  As needed, slow down the dialogue by summarizing points of view and inviting builds from the group.  Ask participants to paraphrase important thoughts and ideas.

If the dialogue is unhealthy, intervene.  Pause the conversation.  Invite the group to revisit their norms or ground rules.  These days, it’s rare that I don’t share something like the following in the first 30 minutes of a workshop: “(smiling) Team, would you believe that smart, well-informed, passionate people such as yourselves sometimes disagree?  I’m sure it will never happen in this workshop, but just in case it does…what ground rules will help us resolve our differences?”  This usually gets a few laughs and does wonders for the team dynamics for the rest of the day.  And when disagreement does arise, I find most people on their best behavior.

If the dialogue turns nasty, it’s time to take a break and to pull the combatants aside.  Remind them about the ground rules, and then allow some time for venting.  Once people feel heard and the emotions are diffused, the conversation often gets healthy again and they are able to resolve the issue.

A personal note…

The opening scenario in this blog is real. I recently facilitated a session for a Fortune 50 consumer products company that was seeking alignment on the vision and path for a corporate digital initiative.  Two participants had a genuine difference of opinion on how to move forward.  Fortunately, the conversation stayed relatively healthy. I had established clear ground rules during the morning kickoff after getting a sense in the planning stages that there were divergent views in the room.   I did intervene in the conversation from time-to-time to check for understanding and to summarize points of view.  This was a highly technical conversation and acronyms were flying like salvoes.  After a debate that lasted nearly an hour, a new level of understanding was reached.  The group realized that the difference in technical approaches was largely based on a misunderstanding of one of the approaches.  The two approaches were more complementary that was previously imagined.  With this new understanding, the group was able to quickly align on a new and synergistic direction and move into action planning.

Paul Zaffiro

I have been facilitating at a professional level for over 15 years. As leader of The GYM, Procter & Gamble’s Global Innovation Capability, I designed and facilitated over 200 sessions in the areas of team building, organizational design, strategic visioning, and idea generation.  I am certified in multiple processes, including the Grove Strategic Visioning Process, Creative Problem Solving, the Basadur Simplexity Process, and the Verus Global Pathways to Leadership Process.  I don’t just design and facilitate sessions; I create experiences.  

When I'm not facilitating, you can find me serving in the community, building houses with Habitat for Humanity. 

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