There are some things in life that are inevitable, and conflict is one of them.
There is no getting away from it, there will come a time where you will encounter a challenging interpersonal situation in your work.
One of the things that differentiates a great leader from an average one, is their ability to manage conflict and handle difficult conversations, not only in a professional manner, but in a way that leaves the situation better off than they found it.
Conflict is an inevitable part of anyone's work, whether it's in your business or in your career: a mistake made by someone in the team, a disagreement within the team or with a client, differing points of view or a personality clash, can all lead to conflict.
Dealing with conflict well, builds trust within your team and strengthens your position as a leader. In my experience, if you handle conflict well, you have a chance of building a strong relationship with the other person. Some of the people that I've had to have the most difficult conversations with have in fact ended up becoming close allies and strong team members.
7 top tips for handling conflict and navigating difficult conversations:
The first step in managing conflict is acknowledging that it exists. Ignoring or avoiding the conflict generally tends to make it worse. If there is an elephant in the room, you might as well call it out. Do so in a calm and non-judgmental manner.
For example: “Hey, John. I know that this project hasn't been as easy to deliver as we would've liked. I'm sensing a little bit of friction between us, some tension. I'd love to be able to find a way to resolve it.”
Keep it simple, don't make it personal and stick to the facts, and do not to do it in the heat of the moment! Don't call it out while tensions are high.
In my experience, the other party/parties are normally relieved that you are the one who has had the courage to call out that there is some sort of tension that could be resolved.
2) Remain calm and professional.
Remaining calm and professional is easier said than done. Although obvious, taking time to mentally prepare can do wonders. You can harness your physiology to lower your stress response through some simple breathing exercises or visualization.
Spend a couple of moments shutting your eyes and calming your breathing, picturing how you'll remain calm throughout the challenging conversation.
During the conversation, speak slowly. Pause. Take your time. Even when, or if, the other person is losing their cool, just return to your breathing. Being the person to throw something or kick the furniture, is never a good look!
3) Listen. Listen. Listen.
Listen, listen, and listen some more. Listening is the most crucial part to managing and handling conflict.
When you listen and you show that you are listening carefully, you demonstrate that you have respect for the other person.
Listening carefully means that you can get to the bottom of the situation and be able to offer a solution that will resolve the matter.
When the other person has finished speaking, do not jump in as if all you've been doing is sitting and waiting for them to finish. Use that time to ask questions and be curious.
Think like a reporter: be quiet and listen, and then be able to play back the headlines to the person you are speaking to. Reflect back to the other person what you think that you have just heard. This is an essential step: without it you run the risk of drawing the wrong conclusions or making assumptions that could only make the problem a lot worse.
4) Find common ground.
When you have two people/parties with disparate or opposite views, this can be difficult, but usually there is at least one, or maybe two, things that both parties have in common.
For example, both may wish for the project to be successful, both may want to work in an environment that is not filled with tension. Whatever it is, find that common ground and build from there.
5) Stay on topic.
Stay focused on the issue. Stay focused on the facts. Now is not the time to drag up the mystery of who ate the lunch that you brought in and left in the office fridge. It is also a good idea to try to avoid using the words like ‘never’ and ‘always.’ It is very rare that somebody ‘never’ does something and is also extremely rare that somebody is ‘always’ doing something else.
Stay on point. Don't make it personal. It is not about being right, check your ego at the door!
6) Apologize simply.
Once you've come up with a solution or a way forwards, make sure that you have apologized for your role in things. Just keep it simple:
“Hey John, thanks for being open with me. I am sorry that I have been overbearing in the client meetings. I can see how it's having a negative impact on the project and the team.”
No excuses, no counterattack. Put your hand up and acknowledge where you have been wrong.
7) Follow up.
Once you have resolved matters, it is important to follow up. Firstly, you need to check that the solution that you put in place is working. Secondly, following up is an opportunity to see if any other issues may have arisen. Most importantly, it shows that you were listening and that you were genuine about resolving the conflict.
Managing conflict and being able to handle difficult conversations in a professional way is essential to building a positive and productive work environment. By acknowledging the conflict, remaining calm, listening, finding common ground, apologizing appropriately, and following up, you will effectively manage conflict and find a way forward.
In fact, you may begin to see conflict as an opportunity for growth and learning.
It is my experience, that dealing with conflict well, is an opportunity to create even stronger bonds with people in your team, and an opportunity to grow even further as a leader.