How to Manage Conflict Constructively

Posted by Kristin Arnold on March 5, 2024

How to Manage Conflict Constructively

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but there are limits to how far team members can take their opinions. All too often, team members forget to encourage a healthy dialogue among team members and turn the conversation into a polarizing debate of one idea versus another. Taken to the extreme, they can dominate the discussion, hoping to gain support from the majority.

Most people dislike conflict. Rather than express disagreement, they will avoid the issue or withdraw from the conversation. On the other hand, some thrive on conflict and the thrill of victory, bullying their issue until they “win.”

Yet conflict is a normal and necessary part of teams coming together to make decisions.  It’s a messy process of discovering what each other knows and creating a holistic, 3-D understanding of what’s important, what’s going on, and what we want the future to be.

In my experience as a professional meeting facilitator, there are three reasons why conflict escalates into a heated discussion:

  1. Disagree on the Core Issue.  What’s the problem you are trying to solve; the opportunity you are trying to leverage?  Why is this so important?  Why are we investing our time together discussing this issue?  In facilitator parlance, we call this “the common ground.”  Once everyone on the team agrees on what the common ground is, you can move forward.  Without it, you’ll be mired in conflict.  Even if you do achieve a superficial agreement, it probably won’t last because there is no foundation holding the agreements together.
  2. Rooted to a Position.  We all come to the table with some preconceived notion about what the “right” course of action is.  Great team players realize this is a starting point for more robust conversation.  They are willing to “let go” of their precious idea and build a collaborative solution.  Others, unfortunately, are so enamored with their great idea that they won’t let it go.  They keep beating their drum, trying to convince others that their idea is the best – which is a real turn-off to teamwork!  I’ve seen an executive bludgeon his way to achieve “team commitment” when all he got was compliance (if not a dose of sabotage!) from the team in the execution of that idea.
  3. Non-Stated Implicit Values.  Once we have all the ideas on the table, we need to evaluate them as a team. This evaluation is typically based on some explicit criteria and implied values.  For example, if the team is trying to buy a car, some explicit criteria (cost, mileage, features, etc.) can be objectively discussed.  Yet, some implicit assumptions may not be so readily apparent.  Perhaps it’s important to buy from a local manufacturer?  Or consider the effect on the environment?  Or maybe one team member just has an anathema to cars?  Until these considerations are discussed, the team might not achieve a true consensus where everyone can live with and support the idea.

In his groundbreaking book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge makes a powerful distinction between dialogue and discussion:

In a discussion, opposing views are presented and defended, and the team searches for the best view to help make a team decision. People in a discussion want their own views to be accepted by the group. The emphasis is on winning rather than on learning.

In dialogue, people freely and creatively explore issues, listen deeply to each other and suspend their own views in search of the truth. People in a dialogue have access to a larger pool of knowledge than any one person enjoys. The primary purpose is to enlarge ideas, not to diminish them. It’s not about winning acceptance of your viewpoint, but exploring every option and agreeing to do what is right.

Encourage Robust Dialogue

To build a climate that supports an overall culture of robust dialogue, try these ground rules:

  • Ask Questions. Clarify what others are saying and ask others if they understand what you are saying.
  • Make Suggestions. Build on your teammates’ ideas. Acknowledge their contributions and integrate their ideas into your suggestions.
  • Support Other Ideas. Clearly express and support your views as well as others on the team.
  • Look for Common Ground. As people share and build on their ideas, look beyond the positions to the deeper issues. Identify areas of agreement or ‘common ground’ to serve as a foundation for positive discussion.
  • Be Helpful. Support each other by providing assistance to others, asking for and offering help.
  • Be Open with Each Other. Be candid with each other openly expressing ideas, opinions, problems and feelings with other team members.
  • Be Innovative. Be responsive to new ideas and different ways of doing things.
  • Challenge Ideas. Ask tough, probing questions. Be willing to debate the issues without taking it personally and find realistic solutions.
  • Encourage Others. Not only have the courage to express your opinions, but the consideration to listen to others. Make it a point to encourage others to contribute one idea before the team makes suggestions.
  • Poll Others Where Appropriate. Ask others to voice their ideas.
  • Ask for Feedback. Ask others what they think of your ideas and give constructive feedback on other people’s ideas.
  • Provide Feedback.  Feedback is often called “the breakfast of champions.”  Periodically point out what’s working and what’s not working so the team can continue the constructive behaviors and adjust the not-so-positive behaviors.  To improve dialogue, create a code word, cue or movement to let team members know when they are not engaging in a robust dialogue. My favorite is the “three knock rule” where you simply tap the table three times to let people know when they are dominating the discussion, generating heat around the issue, etc.
  • Generate Light; Not Heat. Conflict is normal and natural to the process – it’s all in the way the team handles it. Manage the inevitable disagreements in a healthy, constructive way – and don’t let it escalate into a fire.
  • Park it. Stay focused on the topic at hand and put tangents in the parking lot.

How to Manage Conflict Constructively

When team members visibly have different ideas, interests, or positions, take the time to manage the conflict constructively to generate light about the issue – and not “heat.”  Look at the conflict as an opportunity to discuss the issues and build an even better, more sustainable agreement than any one position can offer!  (In fact, I get worried if I don’t see any conflict!) Try these techniques to manage conflict constructively:

  • Just Listen. Let each person talk completely and without interruption. Actively listen to what they have to say. Look for the “why” they are so intent on getting their way. Mentally separate the specific facts and issues from their position.
  • Reassure. Check your understanding of their perspective. Do not imply either of your perspectives is right or wrong. Let them know they have a right to feel the way they do. Validate their feelings but don’t mirror their emotions! Stay neutral. Don’t let their anger or excitement affect your voice, tone, body language, or words. (A word to the wise: If after lots of listening and reassuring, they still haven’t calmed down, suggest that you take a break and return at a specific time to continue the discussion.) Emotions just add fuel to the fire.
  • Build Trust. Agree on what the conflict is. Let them know you would like to see the conflict resolved and that you are willing to work toward a mutually beneficial solution. It is critical that you are honest and you believe the conflict can be resolved. Be truthful and don’t manipulate the situation for your benefit. Avoid using the words, “Yes, but” and say, “I agree and…”
  • Look for the Win/Win. As you work through major issues of the conflict, take the time to summarize both sides. Then summarize where you agree and disagree. Continue to listen and empathize, focusing on solving the conflict. By moving past the positions and identifying the underlying issues, agree on a mutual solution to resolve the conflict. Make suggestions for moving forward and agree on what each of you will do next. Take time to plan positive, practical and concrete steps you both can take. Be sure to write them down so you both can remember what you promised.
  • End with the Future. Summarize your understanding and let them know what you will do, what you expect them to do, and by when. Close with a check-in to make sure they are “okay” and the conflict has been resolved.

How to Mediate a Full-Blown Conflict Constructively

Let’s say you have tried to have a robust dialogue to get the issues out on the table and create the best viable decision for the team.  However, the conflict has now escalated to the point where the team is generating “heat” about the issue.  A conflict between two or more separate parties is best resolved through a negotiation or “mediation” process.  To resolve the disagreement:

  • Halt the Process.  Stop the conversation.  Provide feedback to both parties that the issue has gotten out of hand.   Involve the entire team to discover a win-win resolution of the issue.  Suggest a mediation process to move forward.  Take a break if you need to! 
  • Agree to Proceed.  Once the team has committed to finding a solution, give a brief overview of the mediation process and suggest a few ground rules:
    • Be a good listener.  Listen as an ally, not an adversary.
    • One person speaks at a time.
    • Let’s generate “light” around this issue, rather than “heat.”
    • Be open to another point of view.
  • What Is the Problem?  Ask each person (or divide into sub-teams) to describe the problem from each point of view.  Ask: What does “A” want or need?  What does “B” want or need?  Each party is questioned while the other listens, asking questions only for clarification. 
  • Is There a Problem?  After the questioning, the parties verify there is, indeed, a problem.  The team might be in “violent agreement” over the same issue!  If not, agree on a mutual definition and understanding of the problem.
  • Areas of Agreement.  Brainstorm the things the two (or more) positions have in common.
  • Areas of Disagreement.  Brainstorm the disagreements between the two positions.  You may discover the disagreements are trivial and the team can move forward easily.
  • Look for the Win/Win.  Have each party (or sub-team) brainstorm solutions that could satisfy both parties.  Look for agreement or close agreement in their solutions.  Clarify, combine, and synergize to build a consensus — a decision that everyone can live with and support.
  • End with the Future.  Summarize the team’s understanding of the agreed-upon solution.  Agree on the next steps to move forward.

Remember: Conflict is a normal part of your team’s development, creativity and productivity. Managed effectively, conflict enables the team to communicate their differences, seek common goals and build a collaborative consensus or “win-win.” Managed ineffectively, conflict can lead to frustration, stonewalling, and a breakdown in your team’s work.

Related Articles:

Three Reasons Why Conflict Escalates in Your Team

5 Ways Team Members Handle Conflict

Improve Team Communication – As a Speaker and a Listener!

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

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