It’s 11am Monday morning and you are halfway through your weekly team meeting … and you are caught. Two of your key team leaders just started arguing over the same old issues. Over and over again. You get irritated! Now what do you do? What are your personal conflict escalation or de-escalation patterns? Do you explode? e.g. “For once will you two just shut the !*@$ up!!!!”. That is one way of dealing with it, though not a very constructive one. Will you play peacemaker e.g. “We are all on the same team and we should support each other, don’t you agree?” As attractive as it sounds, this approach will actually escalate the conflict by trying to hide it away. Or do you push it away e.g. “Deal with that outside after we are finished, I will not tolerate that in here”. This is also not a “solution”, because it will come back and hit you like a boomerang, and next time probably in your back. You are part of the conflict whether you like it or not and this means you need to be part of the solution. Hera are 3 fundamental questions you need to ask yourself …
What is it actually going on, right in this moment?
When you find yourself in a conflict situation it is important to ask yourself what is actually happening? What is the “phenomenon”? The search for the phenomenon is hugely important and it is not always easily found. What exactly is happening, right this moment?
- Is it related to me, to my actions?
- Is it related to the budget discussions we are having?
- Is it related to old vendetta or a power battle between the two?
And this brings us to the second question …
How do you feel in this moment?
This question sounds simple enough but can be unexpectedly difficult to truthfully answer when we are in the conflict itself. Work to get past the surface emotions and go deeper. How do you REALLY feel about what is happening? Answering these 2 questions alone significantly increase your chances of being part of the solution. They will help you solve the conflict constructively (de-escalate the situation); by forcing you to use the reflective part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex).
As much as my ego would love to say the reflective brain part is always dominant, IT AIN’T. For none of us. It is the newest part of the brain, and the least dominant one. There is normally a “highway” of connections between the three brain parts/layers, but the moment we are in conflict, this “highway” narrows down to a one-way lane, and that seriously impairs our conflict handling skills.
Now to return to our situation, the meeting situation with the team leaders, you are now standing there, and you have reflected and calmed your primitive part of the brain. It is time to ask the 3rd question.
What do you want to do?
Let’s say you realise it is actually about one team leader being frustrated by a lack of resources. He is disappointed with the situation (and not angry, though it might appear so). Bear in mind his perception is REAL to him. He feels the other department has got all the resources and all the recognition. He has constructed a story in his mind and is now caught in emotions that are not necessarily related to the situation.
OK, so what do you want to do about it? This is the third question. The third option. One way of deciding what to do, would be to focus on ‘choices of conflict strategy’ (problem-solving, forcing, avoiding, accommodation). Another could be to ask what ‘negotiation strategy’ will you use?
The 3 questions help you and your brain work to its full potential
By solving the first two questions the choice for the third one will become the more rational one, whatever it is you want to do. Whatever you choose to do, bear in mind that if you wish to reach these two individuals, with any message at all, you need to help the parts of their brain start communicating again (reopen their highways). You need to speak in short sentences and help them see what is actually going on (Q1) and how do they really feel at the moment (Q2). However you approach solving the conflict you can now see more clearly and can decide actively, with the conflict quickly analysed and you in control of your mind.
Perhaps you now see a need for the ongoing discussion. Perhaps it is linked to the company strategy and valuable with this conflict addressed. You might choose to give the man the recognition he longs for (‘I am aware that your department has been a lot under pressure’. ‘I am also aware that this has nothing to do with the other department’. ‘Let’s have a separate meeting and talk about it’).
Done SINCERELY, you have solved the problem for the moment. You do need to go back, as promised, and address it, but at least now the managers can hear you, and engage in the meeting at hand.
For more information
Target Training has been delivering a range of conflict-related training solutions for the last 15 years. This includes “Handling critical conflict situations” and “Managing conflicts in virtual teams” . We also offer individual and team coaching solutions.
About the author
Preben is a professional mediator and conflict manager. He focuses on human interactions, such as management and leadership, intercultural relationships and interpersonal communication. Until recently he was a welcomed part of Target Training and today works for a major European institution. In his private life he enjoys karate, hiking and climbing.