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Resolving the Conflicts of Others

A group of business people sitting around a conference table.

One of the most valuable services HR professionals can perform is helping other employees resolve their conflicts.

Conflict itself is not necessarily negative. From different points of view, breakthrough ideas or strategies can be found. Synergies can be developed. Wounds can be healed.

Too often, however, workplace conflict becomes destructive. Communication breaks down. Trust erodes. Employees engage in passive or active aggression. The parties to the conflict suffer. And there is collateral damage to other employees, as well as to the company.

Also, such conflicts, if not resolved internally, provide breeding grounds for employment law claims.

HR can thus provide a great service by proactively identifying and helping resolve festering workplace conflicts. Even if the parties to the conflict don't seek HR's help, other employees are inevitably aware of and experiencing its consequences.

When I'm called upon to help resolve the conflicts of others, I follow this series of steps.

First, I interview each party and key stakeholder separately to get an idea of the issues and their antecedent causes. Is the cause an unresolved grievance? Is it a personality difference? Is it structural—are jobs not aligning and instead causing friction? Is it cultural?

Next, I bring the parties together and provide an overview of my understanding of the conflict (without expressing an opinion as to who is right or wrong). I discuss options, which can include maintaining the miserable status quo, a hostile "divorce," an amicable "divorce" or hitting the relationship reset button by committing to new behavior going forward.

I persuade the parties that exploring the last option first makes sense. If that's not successful, then we can explore other options. Then I establish the following ground rules:

1. Disclose all "wells." The Book of Genesis tells how Abraham and the Israelites settle in land occupied by the Philistines. Relations between the two tribes get off to a rocky start. However, as the years go by, the king of the Philistines decides he wants a warmer diplomatic and trade relationship. He rides to the Israelites' camp and proposes a real peace.

Abraham responds, "Yes, but first." He states that to fully resolve their differences, an issue must be resolved. Abraham explains that several years earlier, after his people dug a well, the Philistines took control of it.

The king denies knowledge of the event and offers to give Abraham the well. However, Abraham doesn't want a gift. He proposes a transaction—an exchange of livestock plus seven ewes for formal recognition of the Israelites' title to the well. The parties agree.

According to biblical scholars, the negotiation of the well at Beersheba—Hebrew for "well of seven"—produced the longest period of true peace between the two peoples.

The lesson: For conflict to be resolved long term, the parties must disclose all their "wells"—unresolved but still painful conflicts.

2. Listen to learn. I make it clear to the parties that no one is here to win arguments or even persuade anyone. Rather, the focus will be on listening to learn and understand. 

For every conflict in which I've interceded, mutually reinforcing, negative and mostly erroneous assumptions have formed the bedrock of the conflict. Hence the nonnegotiable rule: no assumptions!

As best-selling author Daniel Pink says, "Don't make assumptions about either side's motives. Assume the parties have positive intent and let them disprove that—rather than doing the reverse."

3. Shift from rearview mirror to windshield. The past is the rearview mirror. We'll look in it. However, most of our attention will be through the windshield to the road ahead. At the end of the day, we won't be faultfinding; we'll be solution finding.

4. Practice facilitative listening and interjecting. I encourage the parties to speak directly to each other instead of communicating through me. The more direct the exchange, the better. 

However, I don't hesitate to interrupt if anyone deviates from the ground rules. Nip that behavior in the bud! It's good to interject and even interrupt based on what you, as the facilitator, hear that suggests a path forward: "Excuse me a moment. If I understand you, it sounds like if the following change occurred, a recurring source of friction would be eliminated. Is that accurate?"

5. Confirm the path forward. If the parties agree to hit the relationship-reset button, I make them get specific about the behaviors they will commit to engage in and not engage in henceforth. We establish check-in points, with and without the facilitator. 

After the meeting, I prepare a Same Day Summary confirming the commitments going forward, including the parties' agreement to hold themselves and each other accountable.

A Boon to the HR Profession

HR professionals who help to resolve the conflicts of others perform an incredibly valuable service that benefits the parties to the conflict, other employees affected by the conflict and the company. Also, it benefits employees' families, since those adversely affected by workplace conflict typically bring it home with them.

I would love to hear your experiences with interceding in the conflicts of others. What did you do, and what was the outcome? Perhaps a subsequent column will be devoted to your stories.


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