By David Bowman, Human Resources Expert
A friend phoned the other day to say that he and a co-worker had recently had a run-in, and now aren’t communicating. They’ve worked together for quite some time, but since their quarrel, she’s begun to snap at him when he says something, and often takes a different point of view – seemingly out of spite.
He said the situation has become uncomfortable and he’d like to clear the air, but wondered how he should approach it. I suggested a few conflict resolution methods that have worked for me in the past.
Discover the other point of view. I’ve found the first step in resolving tensions and/or conflicts is to determine the other person’s perspective of the problem or issue. Ask for a sit-down meeting (perhaps over coffee or lunch, in a location with no interruptions) to talk about the confrontation, the resulting communication problem and how things can be patched up.
Presuming a meeting can be arranged, start by asking about the other person’s perception of what’s happened. However, regardless of what’s said, don’t argue and/or interrupt. There may be tears, maybe even obscenities. But listen. Don’t think about retorts or answers while listening. Try to understand the situation from another perspective. Once emotions are spent, begin talking out the conflict and move into a problem solving mode.
I recall two business partners being so enraged at each other they didn’t speak for several days. Business deals were being lost as a result of their mutual stubborn behavior. I was able to get them talking – screaming and venting at first. But, by the session’s end, they both were so emotionally drained, they finally listened to each other for the first time since their quarrel.
Ask yourself, “how did I contribute to the problem?” Asking this question can be the next step in healing a relationship wound. My friend admitting that he screwed up may seem like eating humble pie, but it also may cause his co-worker to accept some of the fault. In fact, there’s an old adage, “when you point your finger at someone else, three of your fingers are pointing back at you.”
When I have problems in personal or business relationships, I usually start the discovery process with, “tell me what I’ve done wrong.” This, of course, is usually quite unexpected by the other party, and usually softens the response. I can then apologize, attempt a compromise, or continue the conflict resolution process.
Take a break. If the hatchet still can’t be buried, suggest that both parties take some time to sort things out. Often, after an emotional venting on both sides – and a good night’s sleep or two – things don’t look so one-sided. This doesn’t mean postponing a resolution. Just take some time, and agree to meet again at a specified time and place.
I remember a spat between two managers – one in manufacturing and one in R&D – each of whom had quite differing ideas about how to implement a new manufacturing process. They both had dug-in their heels and wouldn’t consider the other’s views. As a result, the business plan for a new product was behind schedule. My attempts to resolve the conflict at a sit-down meeting didn’t work. So, I suggested both parties take two days to consider the consequences to their careers if the new product wasn’t on the market by the time the advertising campaign began. Two days later, they began listening to each other and the problem was resolved.
Ask for help. If the logjam simply can’t be broken, suggest that a trusted third party help. Of course, this must be someone who is knowledgeable and neutral.
I’ve been an arbitrator in countless disputes. Finding solutions has been a matter of getting past the emotions, ensuring the parties understand the different points of view and the consequences of no resolution, as well as applying some logic and give-and-take. There’s always a compromise hiding somewhere in the dialog.
Consider the long view. If, by now, little or no progress has been made and prospects for resolution look dim, ask the other party how important the problem will be down the road – in several weeks or months. Suggest thinking about (and perhaps discussing) any blow-ups in the past – with anyone – the reasons for which now can’t be remembered. “This too shall pass,” is both an old saying and the end to many an argument. Of course, some differences don’t evaporate over time, but it’s usually because the two parties want them to continue.
And there’s the secret to conflict resolution – in the end, the parties must want to settle the differences. If not, they will continue and perhaps escalate, in which case nobody wins.
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