Part two of a four-part look at Conflict Resolution Tools Every Business Needs.
The goal of the basic conflict resolution process we discuss here is to improve communication and reduce losses associated with conflicts.
Whether conflicts are serious or slight, the following conflict resolution process leads those in conflict towards communicating more and arguing less. Using this process at early stages of conflict can help keep information and ideas flowing and prevent more serious conflict from breaking out.
No conflict resolution initiative guarantees that conflicts will be 100 percent solved, although 100 percent solutions are possible. But unlike "win-lose" processes such as litigation or shooting from the hip, communication-based conflict resolution processes like this one tend to improve the relationship between the parties, which can prevent or minimize future conflicts.
This section covers:
- Prerequisites to Conflict Resolution;
- The Role of the Facilitator; and
- Facilitating the Meeting of the Parties.
A section to be added in the future will focus in greater detail on techniques used by facilitators.
A neutral with at least some training in facilitation. You can use an internal or outside facilitator. The essential quality for a facilitator is that he or she is perceived as neutral by the parties and acts in a neutral fashion, including keeping confidentiality and not allowing bias into the proceedings.
Although a facilitator with minimal training and experience still can be effective--in fact, such has been the case for thousands of years--training and experience help a facilitator to avoid becoming personally entangled and to find productive ways to encourage the parties to exchange information and ideas with one another.
Participation from all of the interested parties. To work towards resolution of a conflict means to improve communication and understanding between the parties, possibly resulting in an explicit agreement. A unilateral change in position by one party alone doesn't produce this result. All the parties involved in the conflict must complete the process together.
The willingness of all parties to learn as they go and adapt creatively. Participants who are absolutely unwilling to revisit or modify any part of their positions and/or behavior make poor candidates for conflict resolution procedures. For this reason the facilitator should prepare all parties in advance by asking for and receiving confirmation that they are prepared to brainstorm options.
Participation from the top levels of your organization. To make sure everyone is on the same page, it may be wise to confirm that higher-ups are willing to "honor the process," whether or not they are actively involved. Their direct involvement in the process isn't necessarily required, unless of course they are identified by themselves or other parties to the dispute as being involved, or their approval is necessary to a solution. In fact, sometimes upper levels wish to be kept out of the fight, and handing the problem off to a dispute resolution procedure is a welcome "out" for them.
When executives do personally participate, while the boss is always the boss it is critical that the facilitator holds her to the same obligations as the other parties and does not show any bias in her favor.
Before the Parties Meet, Ask Them Preparation Questions. Before the parties meet the facilitator begins by privately asking each party questions about the issues, listening to validate them but not otherwise agreeing or critiquing. This is as much to prepare the parties as it is to prepare the facilitator, helping them vent emotion, feel they are being heard, and dig down into what they are going to discuss with the other parties. The preparation questions are:
What are the issues from your perspective?
Who else is involved?
What issues do the other parties have?
What do you need to resolve this--what underlying goals, needs, concerns, etc. need to be met?
What do you think the other parties need?
What proposals do you have to resolve the issues and satisfy all sets of needs?
How might you convince the other parties of the reasonableness of your proposals?
Would you be willing to get together with the other parties to talk?
Then the facilitator invites the parties to a meeting or series of meetings at which each party has an opportunity to present their issues again.
At the Meeting: Meeting Goals. At the beginning of the meeting the facilitator should ask the parties to talk about, and possibly agree to, the objectives of the meeting. Is the goal just to obtain a better understanding, or to come to an agreement? If the goal is consensus, what does "consensus" mean?
Daniel Dana is the author of a book called Conflict Resolution which has excellent information about conflict resolution for managers, including "how to" sections about resolving disputes between team members or disputes that managers themselves are involved in.
According to Dana, there are three important functions of the mediator during the mediation. One is to keep the parties focused on talking about their issues and possible solutions if they start talking about something else. The second is to notice and point out, by repeating out loud, conciliatory gestures. Breakthroughs in disarming the parties' antagonism towards each other often occur when both parties have started making conciliatory gestures, at which point effective problem solving can begin. The third is to avoid interfering except for functions one and two. 3
Conciliatory gestures may include apologies, accepting responsibility, making concessions, disclosing important new information, complimenting their opponent, or promoting the concept of finding a win-win outcome. Conciliatory gestures are often embedded in the midst of long, antagonistic position statements. The mediator simply points out the conciliatory gesture to the parties, while ignoring any antagonistic statements that were expressed along with it. 3
Ground Rules. Time constraints are discussed, as are ground rules for communicating, such as no interruptions while one person has the floor and no criticism of others' ideas until all ideas are on the table.
Facilitator Options. After goals and rules are established, the facilitator has a wide range of options from which he or she chooses according to what will best motivate the parties to improve communication and work together constructively on problem solving.
In some situations a powerful strategy for the facilitator is to encourage the parties to "agree to the problem" first. One way of stating this is: "What is the problem that we want to work on? If we can't agree on the problem, we're not likely to agree on the solution." Actually agreeing on the problem isn't necessary, of course; the simple fact that the parties are communicating may be progress enough for the initial stages of some conflict resolution processes.
Some other possible options are:
- The facilitator may prioritize issues for discussion.
- The facilitator may focus only on issues that are disputed.
- The facilitator may propose an agenda and lead discussion of each issue in turn
- The facilitator may help the parties build an agenda together
- The facilitator may ask the same questions asked privately before the meeting of the parties, perhaps in a different sequence, this time for everyone to hear the answers.
- The facilitator may want to initiate an option-raising or brainstorming session to look for options that everyone can agree to.
At the End of the Process. Ultimately the facilitator may suggest that the parties adopt a written agreement specifying actions that they will take to pursue options on which all parties agree.
Additional source material:
1 Daniel Dana, Conflict Resolution (McGraw-Hill, 2001), p. 67.
2 Dana, pp. 70-72, 88.
by Bruce Wilson with mediator-facilitators Heidi and Dan Chay