Have you ever found yourself in a head to head with a team colleague?  Wondering how did we get to this point, and how can we unravel things?  These stags know why they are fighting.  In my experience as a business leader and team coach, the causes and solutions for conflict between colleagues are often much less clear cut.

Why do we end-up in head to head situations?

A great value of diverse teams is the mix of perspectives, experience and capabilities.  Healthy dialogue and disagreement are essential to a full exploration of an issue/opportunity and to generate the best way forward.  But sometimes healthy discussions tip into a confrontational head to head.  Some common causes include:

  • The way the dialogue is framed, and the process used to explore it. I often find that the issue at hand, is not clearly defined and the discussion is a free-for-all, rather than using a generative process.   This creates unnecessary confusion and tension, that can become personalised.
  • People representing differing needs in the system. All structures have their natural points of tension eg operations and sales.  This may explain why 2 or more people find themselves on differing sides in a series of discussions.  Both perspectives need to be heard and the dilemmas explored, recognising the source of the tension as systemic not personal.
  • Personal agendas in play. 2 or more people with conflicting personal ambitions.  If they take a narrow view in pursuing their interests, they look for opportunities to play it out in their work.  A little like our stags!
  • A spiralling escalation from simple misunderstandings, that become personalised. For instance, this morning, I was triggered by an email that said I had not done something.  I drafted an irritated and patronising response.  Then I paused, recognising this will only provoke resentment in the recipient.  So, I drafted a simple, factual email.  The issue is now sorted without any drama!

What can we do to de-escalate a situation?  A few tips from my experience:

  • Listen carefully. Be curious and understand the thinking and perspective of the other person.  The stronger the disagreement, the greater the need to listen and explore.  To what data/information are they paying attention?  How are their assumptions or values different from yours?  This is respectful, and also helps you look again at your own perspective.  Disentangle the points of difference and explore them together.
  • Be aware of and curious about your own emotional responses. We are embodied beings, and our emotions are very much a part of what drives us.  We need to consider how we express them.  Letting people know how strongly we feel and why, can be very constructive, but venting is unhelpful.  Email/text are poor tools for expressing negative feelings.  When something is said in a room that does not land well, the receiver and speaker can usually sense it, and seek to address it in the moment.  Working virtually, we need to give special attention to the audio and visual clues on how a message is being received, so we can clarify and calibrate more readily.
  • Assume good intent at the outset. The great majority of people want to do a good job and to further the broader interest, rather than just their own.  Start with this assumption, rather than being suspicious.  It speeds progress to collaborative relationships.   Occasionally, based on experience, you might you need to adjust the assumption.  Then the challenge is naming the real issue and putting it on the table for discussion.
  • Revisit the shared purpose. What are you working in service of, together?  What is your shared purpose?  Stepping back to look at the issue with this in mind is a way to de-escalate and find common ground.  It is not about compromise but managing the dilemma and generating an integrated approach.

It is wrong-headed to think we can leave our emotions out of the room and be purely rational.  The better we understand what is being provoked in us and why, the better we can work with others to avoid conflict and to work our way through it, when it happens.  I have enjoyed working in, and with, many teams.  I often help people see and understand the sources of conflict and how they might step back and adjust their behaviour to work better, together.  Nothing is more satisfying than helping to de-escalate, unravel the issues and find a constructive way forward.  It’s a core part of my team coaching practice.

(If you like the stag picture, it is available from my son, at https://www.oliversmithsphotography.com/).