Conflict resolution skills to master so you every member of your team can 'gel' well — even remotely.
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.
But first, what are some effects of conflict in the workplace?
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:
- Bad vibes around the virtual office space right after a ping-pong of accusations.
- Slow (or failed) projects as collaboration takes a hit.
- High levels of stress results in decreased productivity all around, as focus drops.
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.
So, let’s get to the meat of the matter: What are conflict resolution skills that you need to pick up?
Conflict resolution skills start with spotting the conflict, going on to addressing it objectively, understanding each person’s POV, and facilitating a solution.
Right, that’s a lot of work.
Let’s break this down into individual conflict resolution skills:
- Emotional intelligence
- Stress management
But before we get to these skills, you’ll need to learn how to:
- Identify conflicts: of course conflict resolution gets tricky if you can’t identify the conflict in the first place.
- Change your mindset: adjust your mindset from solving the issue to facilitating a solution. There's a difference. (Wait till we get there, it will all make sense.)
How to identify conflicts in your remote workplace?
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.
- Keep your ears peeled in a team video or phone call if you're someone who's convinced by hearing things. For instance, you pin down conflict in someone’s tone.
- Make video chats a regular part of your team’s communication if you are better at identifying the first signs of a conflict by seeing things.
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:
- Rude comments or someone trying to make fun of someone.
- Brusqueness. Are two colleagues who talk well exchanging only a few messages now?
- Teammates not asking clarification questions from each other.
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:
- Not ideal: Sara shares a lengthy blog post with John who says he can’t read it. End of story: First signs of conflict detected, but ignored. Sara feels hurt but decides not to address the issue, and decides never to ask John to read one of her blog posts again.
- Ideal: Sara shares a lengthy blog post with John who says he can’t read it. So, Sara asks, “are you meaning you don’t want to read it or is it something else.” John then explains, “Oh, it’s not that. I just think that someone who’s interested in this topic can give you better feedback than I can." Now, Sara knows that John meant no harm, and makes a mental note to circle back to John when there is a blog topic that is more relevant to him.
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.
Change your mindset before you work on your conflict management skills.
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.
These are the 6 conflict resolution skills you need to develop:
Let’s get to work:
1. Effective communication – the exact opposite of ostriching, our wishful approach to quarrels.
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:
- Verbal communication: the focus is on the spoken words themselves.
- Non-verbal communication: the focus is on body language, gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye contact.
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:
a. Verbal communication: Ask the right questions.
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:
- Ideal: “Sara, what’s the meaning you make from John shrugging his shoulders?”
- Also: “John, what did you mean or what’s your intention behind shrugging your shoulders?”
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.
b. Non-verbal communication: Give the right non-verbal cues.
There are a few things you can do here:
- Rephrase what the other person is saying (my favorite thing to do!): This tells you’re interested in resolving the issue while understanding the other person’s point.
- Position your camera right: If you’re any bit like me and prefer using your hands to explain your point, make sure you position your camera to show your actions so they work in your favor, not against you.
- Mirror reactions: These help build rapport and, again, show your interest in solving the issue. If a person is leaning forward, you should too. If they’ve their hand on their chin. Replicate. But keep it subtle, of course. Mimicking every single thing someone else does will get creepy fast.
- Other cues: Nod and maintain eye contact. This goes a long way in showing your understanding. Using facial expressions to convey your concern and meaning can be helpful too, particularly when working with an affective communicator.
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.
2. Emotional intelligence – because, hey! We’re all a little emotional sometimes (alright… lots of times).
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:
- Having weekly team meetings (separate from ‘stand-ups’ or status update meetings) where you create a safe space for everyone to discuss how they’re feeling. Go around the group and find out how everyone is doing in relation to any current crises in the world or their immediate environment.
- Hosting virtual coffee or drink chats to create a connected atmosphere for the team. The team at Confluence has a Slack channel, ‘meme-work’, where members have a laugh over funny memes. They also share pictures of their lunch, view, pets, and more.
3. Stress management – cause it’s running amok in the current times.
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:
- Understand and manage your stress triggers.
- Accept (don’t ignore) your own stress levels and have a strategy to neutralize it so you can respond to things as opposed to reacting.
- Acknowledge your team’s stress levels. One way to do so is by starting all attempts at cooling a heated conflict by first saying, “I understand you’re stressed…”
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.
4. Empathy – because it's more than just a buzzword.
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:
- Ideal: I hear you’re feeling very frustrated, [colleague name]. These are trying times and we’re all very stressed, but can you explain your intention behind…
- Also ideal: These are challenging times and I understand that all of us are seriously stressed [ask your question]
You can also do more by:
- Trying to understand why a certain matter is important to your teammate(s) before resolving the issue (your weekly meetings are a good place to start).
- Accepting everyone’s feelings and the effort they’re putting into their work.
5. Impartiality – because you don’t want to divide and fail headfirst.
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:
- Try to stay calm and be mindful of your tone. If all hell breaks loose and you feel overwhelmed, ask to take a 5-minute ‘bathroom’ break. Then, take deep breaths to regain your sense of calm and perspective.
- Never involve past fights in a prevailing conflict. There’s no point in opening old wounds, and it can actually be extremely damaging to all parties involved.
- Make the conflict about someone’s behavior or language, never about the person.
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:
- Not ideal: John, you are such a dismissive person.
- Ideal: John, I see you shrugged your shoulders. Sara says she felt you’re dismissing her comments. Can you explain what your intention was when you shrugged your shoulders?
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.
6. Negotiation – nothing’s going to resolve itself unless you speak up.
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:
- Be clear, concise, and specific about what’s bothering you or whatever it is that you want to say. Spare people the rant.
- Lean on ‘we’ (you’re a team, after all) instead of the self-absorbent “I”, or the accusatory “you.”
- Express your feelings in words, not actions.
- Use verbal affirmations as you work your way through a conflict. These are words like, “I understand,” “I see,” “sure,” and so on.
- Not ideal: You said you don’t want to work with me. How horrible of you!
- Ideal: I don’t understand why you’re feeling frustrated and don’t want to potentially work with me.
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.
Ready to referee office wars without losing your cool?
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.