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Unless you’re Master Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there’s a good chance your conflict resolution skills need polishing. Because let’s be honest — no matter how hard you try, you’ll almost always bump into a conflict at work at some point, especially when working with a remote team.
The good news: you’re not alone. 85% of employees deal with disputes on one level or another. 29% come face-to-face with conflicts almost constantly.
The bad news: life just threw a remote working lemon at you (no thanks to COVID-19).
Now what? How do you virtually solve conflicts simmering in your team? Heck, how do you even identify them? Should you wait until someone comes to you to say, “I’m fed up. I resign!” I think we can all agree that any leader would prefer to resolve a conflict before it escalates to that point — even if you’re only managing up.
Putting your conflict management skills to work is the obvious solution here, but mediating tension in a remote team is often easier said than done.
So I’ll dedicate this piece to digging into which conflict resolution skills you should work on to keep your remote team well-oiled, connected, and... ahm… on good terms. I’ll also tell you exactly how you can develop each skill. By the end of the piece, you'll be armed with the right way to nip conflicts in the bud.
I won’t bore you with the details of what conflict resolution is – you probably already know that the definition of conflict resolution is essentially resolving disputes.
Or, being Master Splinter who calmly manages a team of turtles running fast to save the world on time (pun intended).
It can seem pretty daunting as we look at the effects of conflict in the workplace:
That’s not all.
Employees spend about 3 hours every week attempting to straighten out conflicts. What’s more, managers invest double the time – 6 hours – ironing out wrinkles in the workplace. That’s 15% of their time.
Can you imagine all you could accomplish if you were able to reclaim even half that time? I’m guessing you could move even more mountains than you already do.
And if we dig into the bulk of what is causing this conflict, it’s easy to see: coworker fights. A recent study revealed that 100% of workplace conflict was caused by ‘other people’ — a clear indicator that understanding and improving team dynamics is absolutely critical to a team’s success.
In a way, this makes sense. Everyone on the team has different motivations. After all, it’s a team of humans, not clones.
Besides, you can’t expect a team to get along all the time. Even the team members who share the most in common won’t be (virtually) high-fiving each other and sharing laughs every day — it’s just human nature.
Hell, even the Avengers had disputes.
Conflict resolution skills start with spotting the conflict, going on to addressing it objectively, understanding each person’s POV, and facilitating a solution.
The primary conflict resolutions skills you need at work are:
But before we get to these skills, you’ll need to learn how to:
In a remote work environment, this part can be a little tricky. The virtual setting means you aren’t physically present in an office to see a conflict bubbling up. What you can do though is use your personal strengths to your advantage.
Since so many of us around the globe are working from home, there’s a third addition here: reading signs of conflict in written conversations. How so? Glad you asked, I do that all the time since I’ve been remote working for over three years now.
Look out for:
This last one is a hat tip to a certified Meta Coach (ACMC), Dina Cooper, who uses F4S to help bring out the best in leaders and teams at work. Dina also happens to be an expert at coaching parents in conflict resolution methods so they can discover the joy of low-stress parenting while empowering their children for the ‘future of work’. It turns out there’s a huge overlap between managing your ‘home’ team (aka your family) and your high-performance remote team.
Dina explained that when people engage with one another (and are on peaceful terms), they often ask each other clarification questions. Or, as she puts it, ask questions that seek out, “the meaning behind why somebody shares something that they do.”
Here’s an example:
To make sure conflicts don’t run right under your nose, arrange regular check-ins. It’s a good idea to schedule weekly virtual meetings so you can keep your pulse on the team’s collaboration and ferret out conflicts.
Here's the thing: going in with the mindset of solving the issue isn't going to help.
However, understanding each involved person's viewpoint can help clear up the case amicably.
Dina shares that it’s best to see yourself as a facilitator, not a resolver. When you think of yourself as the latter, you start looking at things from a need-to-fix-immediately lens.
But, all the parties are more likely to emerge satisfied when you understand that everyone has the resources needed to resolve the issue. And, you’ve to work as a patient moderator.
Plus, this goes without saying, but you need to be prepared to accept differences in opinion. Just because you love pink, doesn’t mean the rest of the office does too. Let’s cut the BS here: this is work, not Mean Girls.
Let’s get to work:
Communication and conflict resolution in the workplace always go hand in hand. Try as you might, ostriching (burying your head in the sand) is never a successful tactic.
The opposite of averting the problem, facing the issue headfirst, always works best. This brings us to developing a proactive communication strategy, which involves understanding the heart of the problem and the stakes of those involved.
Communication branches into two main categories:
Dig into how individuals on your team prefer to communicate in a shit-tuation. Do they zoom in on and read between the lines of your choice of words? Or do they pay attention to the change in the color of your face, eyebrows reaching for the hairline, and other such non-verbal signs?
Needless to say, each person prefers to communicate either verbally or non-verbally. The question now is: how can you be certain of each person’s preferred communication style?
Fingerprint for Success (F4S) helps with just that. It assists you in understanding who in your team is an affective communicator (pays attention to details like body language and tone of voice) and who is more of a neutral communicator (focuses on words).
While working at Investible, Annie Luu used exactly this info to improve communication between two co-founders (her clients) at an 8-week accelerator program. The results? Her clients were able to get over the bickering to generate revenue, grow their customer base, and more.
So how do you take all this info and put to work? Here’s how:
We’ve already talked about asking clarification questions. Those help learn the meaning behind someone’s actions.
Another type of question you can ask: meaning questions. These are questions that dive into the intention behind a behavior.
Say, one of your colleagues (let’s call him John again) shrugs his shoulders. And another one of them, (our other imaginary team mate) Sara finds that dismissive.
So, the meaning questions you can ask both of them are:
This gives each team member the opportunity to clarify the meaning behind their actions and reactions, ultimately leading to better understanding between them and the potential dissolution of the conflict, before it escalates further.
There are a few things you can do here:
If you are a leader, you should practice these conflict resolution skills regularly, but it’s a good idea to share them with your team as well to help them increase their mindfulness. This will also encourage them to take more responsibility for their own interactions, and be more proactive about conflicts when they start to arise.
As human beings, it’s natural that each of us is dealing with various feelings that pop up throughout the day. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your and your teammates’ feelings, and respond in a proactive, non-reactive way. Frequently, a team member’s emotions may influence their response or interpretation of an event.
It’s your job to work on building emotional intelligence skills before your help is needed, so you’re ready to offer support when tension arises (rather than being reactive and inadvertently escalating the situation yourself). Putting the development of your emotional intelligence on the back burner won't cut it.
And, frankly, at any point “there could be something going on for you [or your staff] and that’s what’s spilling over and creating the conflict,” as Dina puts it.
Since you aren’t a mind reader, you can keep your pulse on your team’s emotions by:
This conflict resolution skill links closely with emotional intelligence. After all, you’ve got to be aware of the stress you’re feeling first before managing it, or attempting to help others to manage their’s.
It’s essential to practice managing the stress you feel, because as we mentioned before, stress can impair logical thinking. Or, as Dina highlights, you end up reacting illogically, instead of responding logically.
Here’s how to put in the legwork:
Bonus: Be mindful of everyone’s stress levels even if they don’t expressly admit it. Especially in current times, while we’re in the middle of a pandemic and panic is our life’s general theme song.
You’ve probably heard the word ‘empathy’ thrown around somewhere. It’s about having a non-judgemental attitude and genuinely trying to understand what others are going through.
To do this, you need to start off with a curious mindset. Go about asking why someone is reacting in a certain way. This way, you’re at better odds of learning the root of the problem.
Dina uses the same approach. She explains, “the mindset that I go in with is that everyone’s doing the best they can under the circumstances and so, if I truly believe that, I want to then understand why. Why is that person reacting that way?”
Another tip to improve your conflict resolution skills : make sure to acknowledge everyone’s feelings before you ask any questions.
Here’s what I mean:
You can also do more by:
Your team’s dynamics can quickly screech, then fail, if everyone starts taking sides. This includes you, as a mediator. Impartiality can help keep such a dire situation at bay. Unless you’re a zen person, this can be challenging. But not impossible.
Try these tips:
The last tip, in particular, can get you a gold medal for workplace conflict resolution. Or, any dispute actually.
Let’s take our imaginary friends, John and Sara, again. The situation we have is: John shrugged his shoulders in the middle of a fierce word exchange with Sara.
Here’s how to tread the right way here:
It’s possible John clarifies he shrugged his shoulders because he had pain in this right shoulder, and he meant to release some tension. That’s all.
And if Sara is an affective communicator, while John is a neutral communicator (or vice versa), helping them to understand their different communication styles will help to clear up the conflict and prevent future ones. Remember that empathy is built through the desire to understand another.
There’s one more thing you can do here: avoid evaluative language. Let’s tie this in with our final conflict resolution skill.
No matter how empathetic you are or how unbiased your approach is, things won’t untie themselves if you don’t get your point across. Nobody’s asking you to be Raquel Murillo, but brushing up on your negotiation skills can go a long way. (If you haven’t watched Money Heist yet, stop right here and go watch it — Raquel is a fun character example of a skilled mediator.)
Here are some takeaways to be a better negotiator:
In a remote team, it’s also important you wait your turn. Don’t go on babbling. Give the other person time to share their opinion. And don’t go into an interaction with the intention of winning the argument.
We're glad you asked! People often use the two terms interchangeably, but there’s one fundamental difference: conflict resolution aims to solve and bring an end to a conflict, whereas conflict management aims to minimize the adverse effects and enhance the benefits of conflict.
So while conflict management may eventually lead to resolution, that is not necessarily its goal.
Now, the idea that conflict may actually have benefits may be surprising to you, especially since conflict is often viewed so negatively. But let’s take a look at some research.
In a paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers found that conflict can boost creativity because it motivates participants to think more in-depth.
“For managers, this means that the concept of removing all conflict from your teams should be taken with a pinch of salt,” writes Sujin Lee, one of the paper’s authors. “But this isn’t a call to create a conflictual environment for your employees to work in. Remember that this is about putting people in a frame of mind that makes them aware of the differences between themselves and others.”
Let’s illustrate the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management with an example:
Now that you see that conflict can be beneficial at times, let’s break down the conflict management skills you can employ to make sure your team comes out of a disagreement stronger than ever.
One of the foundational conflict management skills is observation because to even begin managing a conflict, you must notice that one exists. Learning to become more observant starts with knowing what to look for.
Here are some signs that there may be a conflict in your team:
If the first sign of conflict makes you want to run the other way, you may need to work on your assertiveness. According to Psychology Today, “people who are assertive clearly and respectfully communicate their wants, needs, positions, and boundaries to others.”
This is in direct contrast to passivity. Someone who is passive might avoid confrontation, which means they never truly manage conflict because they refuse to acknowledge it.
Being assertive as a manager often means being the first one to address a brewing conflict. You’ll need to be clear about what you notice, why it’s a problem, and how you intend to help.
When managing conflict on your team, try not to choose sides or pin one person as the “good guy” and the other as the “bad guy.” Though it may be tough to remain impartial, it may be easier if you’re already motivated toward tolerance. Tolerance is one of the 48 workplace traits we measure in F4S. People high in tolerance see the value of having a team full of people with unique individual styles. They understand and embrace that people have different values and approaches.
So, if two teammates have opposing views on how to approach a particular problem, it might not be that one approach is right and the other is wrong. Instead, it may just be two different ways of framing an issue.
However, keep in mind that too high a motivation for tolerance can backfire because it will cause you to be too tolerant of bad behavior; in that case, you might not ever address conflicts.
As a manager, it may be tempting to do all the talking when there’s a conflict. But if you genuinely want to see the situation from another person’s perspective, you need to ask questions and pay attention to the replies.
It may seem like a simple skill, but surveys show that listening is lacking in the workplace.
A 2020 Leadership IQ survey found that most employees don’t feel like management openly listens to their concerns about discrimination. In fact, only 29% said that management always "listens to employee concerns about discrimination (race, sex/gender, age, etc.) without blame or defensiveness."
Another study, led by John Izzo, polled 675 professionals in the U.S. and Canada found that the top reason employees don’t take initiative at work is that leaders don’t ask for their input before making significant decisions.
If you want to make the most of a conflict, be sure to listen to your team’s feedback and suggestions.
Humility keeps your ego in check. Instead of thinking you have the best idea (which might cause you to overlook other solutions), remain open to the possibility that you are wrong.
Some signs of a humble approach to conflict management:
To effectively manage conflict, you’ll need to brainstorm new ways to approach the problem and accommodate all sides as much as possible. This requires creativity. Unfortunately, one common side effect of conflict is that we tend to get tunnel vision when we’re upset or under pressure: We’re just not able to see all the possibilities.
To combat this effect, consider the “broaden-and-build” theory. This theory suggests that positive emotions—such as joy, contentment, and amusement—help boost creativity. So the next time you’re handling a dispute, it’s worthwhile to stay positive. But if you need more actionable steps, check out these team-building activities that can usher in some joy amid the conflict.
So what happens if you call upon your creative skills but still feel stuck? That’s when you can tap into your collaboration skills! Remember, you’ve got smart and capable team members at your fingertips. The ones involved in the conflict might be best equipped to brainstorm solutions with you. Be sure to ask for their feedback and actively involve them in the conflict management process.
“Having worked with hundreds of organizations, it has been my experience that a gold mine of talent lay dormant in almost every company,” writes business advisor Dr. John Izzo. “However, there is often a disconnect between leaders and employees so some of the brightest minds with the best ideas go unnoticed.”
By working together with your team and seeking their ideas, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle any problem that comes your way.
Conflict management often requires a strategy just as dynamic as your team. You may attempt one approach, but if you find that it isn’t working well, it’s okay to change course. As a manager, you’ll benefit from remaining adaptable during the entire process, never getting too attached to one tactic.
Being able to handle your emotions is an essential conflict management skill. This includes being able to emotionally detach yourself from the outcome. Remember, conflict management doesn’t directly seek a solution; it merely tries to minimize the negative effects of conflict and maximize the positive effects. If you’re too invested in fixing the problem, you might fail to reap the benefits of the challenge.
Managing a conflict will inevitably involve disappointments. Maybe a solution you thought would appease both parties totally failed, or perhaps when you tried to mediate an argument between your teammates, you only made things worse. You won’t get it right 100% of the time, and this can take an emotional toll on you as a manager. Building resilience will ensure that you remain mentally strong enough to continue leading your team, despite any setbacks.
As a manager, you must view conflict management through the lens of relationship building. That's because, unlike an outside consultant or mediator, you will work with this team day in and day out for a long time. So whenever you’re managing conflict on your team, take care not to damage the bonds between you and your direct reports.
“Maintaining a positive relationship means understanding, respecting and staying aware of the other person’s perspective,” writes former hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser, “even—or especially—when you don’t agree with a specific point or behavior, demonstrate your acceptance of them as a person.”
Questions—and the way you frame them—can greatly influence how someone feels and responds. When asking questions during conflict management, one helpful tip is to swap out “why” for “what.”
Why—erm, I mean, what makes this so? Well, “why” tends to put us in defensive mode. We sense that we are being interrogated or accused when we hear that word. But, switch to “what” and suddenly the question feels less accusatory.
“The defensive reaction to ‘why’ is something that we discovered within the hostage negotiation world,” writes corporate negotiation expert Brandon Voss, “but has proven to be true in both business and personal communication.”
When dealing with conflict, emotions are already running high. Add impatience to the mix, and things could boil over—and all your hard work could go down the drain. Instead of rushing the process and potentially making matters worse, remain patient.
For instance, if you are about to make a decision that could significantly affect the conflict you’re trying to manage, ask yourself, “Do I need to make this decision right now, or can it wait until tomorrow?” Giving a major decision a “cooling off” period can help you ensure it’s the right one before moving forward.
Self-awareness is one of the best conflict management skills you can have. If you're being called in to mediate, for example, you'll need to observe and monitor your own emotions and biases to make sure they don't negatively color your decisions.
How can you become more self-aware? Ask for feedback.
“Provided it is done well, constructive, formalized feedback allows us to better see our own strengths and weaknesses,” writes Anthony Tjan, founder of venture capital firm Cue Ball. His firm encourages founders to implement a formal feedback process touching upon several competencies.
Beyond observing the strengths and weaknesses in yourself, you’ll need to see them in your team too. The unique ways in which each individual views problems and communicates information affects how a conflict arises and is managed.
For example, someone who is motivated toward neutral communication pays close attention to what is being said and carefully chooses their words. This can be confusing, even frustrating, for someone motivated toward affective communication because an affective communicator focuses on non-verbals, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. When conflict arises between a neutral communicator and an affective communicator, it may be due to a mismatch in communication styles. But you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t aware of your team’s motivations.
The most effective way to quickly gain team awareness is by using our free people analytics tool. With F4S, you can use an evidence-based assessment to determine the workplace motivations and blind spots present in your team.
Remember, the goal is not to avoid conflict at all costs, but rather, to manage conflict in a way that ultimately strengthens your team. Whenever diverse backgrounds and novel ideas meet, there will be friction—it’s part of the innovation process!
As a manager, by honing your conflict management skills, you can ensure that the next time your team is in a heated debate, it remains respectful and productive and will ultimately bear good fruit for your organization.
These proven conflict resolutions skills can make the difference between a successful remote team and one that’s at the verge of throwing punches. All the time. You can always work on each skill one at a time and see the difference they make. But, if you look closely, all conflict management skills can be tied back to developing a profound understanding of yourself, your team and what makes each person tick.