4 Tips For Using Language To Improve Conflict Resolution Skills At Work

 As a certified EOS® Implementer (that’s the Entrepreneurial Operating System) and trained conflict resolution specialist, I’ve never had to look hard to find teams that aren’t managing conflict as well as they could.

All teams have conflict. As a leader you know that to be true. You also know that the responsibility of managing conflict resolution often falls on you. 

What you may not know is that conflict resolution is more than just listening to both sides attentively and respecting their opinions. Teams are complex things, and maintaining them requires complex approaches. You’ve probably read or seen advice on managing conflict in the workplace before. People on YouTube that have surface level advice are in no short supply. But, as a leader, you need more than just surface advice. You need the details.

One of the key details that most teams forget is that language is as much a part of co nflict resolution as the actual solutions presented. The amount of research done into language in conflict could fill its own library. You probably don’t need that much detail. But, what I will give you today is 4 tips to ensure you are using language to improve your conflict resolution at work.

Asking “Is That Right?”

No single mistake will tank your peace making attempts faster than making them believe you aren’t listening. There are a lot of ways to improve your active listening techniques, but the most effective is to employ the “is that right” approach. 

The approach is simple. After someone has stated their opinion, position, or feelings, you go through the following steps.

  1. Thank them for their contribution 
  2. Ask if it’s OK to clarify
  3. Paraphrase what they said
  4. Ask if that is an accurate and complete understanding

These simple steps accomplish so much. 1) You’ve verified that you are appreciative and respectful of their contribution. 2) By asking permission, you avoid the implicit power struggle of interrupting. 3) Paraphrasing their position actively helps you to remember and understand what they’ve said. And 4) you’ve ensured that misunderstanding are minimized and again shown that you are attempting to understand their position by asking them to verify your understanding.

The “is that right” approach takes very little effort, but the rewards are immense. If you remember only one thing from this article, it should be to use this whenever you are managing conflict at home or at work.

 

Asking Clarifying Questions Respectfully

The next step in managing conflict (either one-on-one or as an adjudicator) is to avoid the appearance of an interrogation when asking questions.

As leaders begin to get an understanding of their conflict resolution toolbox, they start asking more and more questions. Good leaders almost always do. They know that information is almost always the key to a good decision.

However, conflict resolution organically leads to yes/no questions as one person is attempting to verify or understand the other person’s behavior/ opinion/ account of what happened. Let’s look at why this can have a negative impact by using an example:

  • A) I ordered the forms to be printed on Monday. They should have arrived on Wednesday. Instead they arrived on Friday and had been printed wrong. 
  • B) So, you ordered the forms Monday?
  • A) Yes.
  • B) And they arrived late and wrong?
  • A) Yes.
  • B) Did you immediately order new forms?
  • A) Yes, I ordered them again on Monday. That’s why we are a week behind schedule.

This isn’t a conversation. This is an interrogation. Person A is going to quickly feel like person B is taking an accusatory voice with them. Look at the passage again. What is the relationship here? You almost certainly assumed that person B is person A’s boss, even though I never mentioned that.

When people are seeking to verify information for the purpose of understanding the situation, it can easily come off as accusatory or as a dominance seeking behavior. 

The best way to avoid this is to ask permission to verify information. You do so in the same way as step 1 from our previous section. Before asking to verify any information that you think will take more than one question, simply ask, “is it OK if I ask a question, just to make sure I understand.” 

It’s important to use both parts of this. First, you’re asking permission to verify information. Second, you’re making sure the other person knows you’re looking to understand, not accuse or reprimand.

Using “I Statements” In Conflict Resolution

When conflict arises, people are looking for a chance to feel attacked. This heightened state of defensiveness leaves open countless opportunities for a poor choice of wording to move a simple surface level conflict to the point of damaging trust. And, if you read my blog you know that trust and confidence are the primary building blocks of teams that consistently succeed.

The idea of “I Statements” is one that comes primarily from personal conflict resolution research. However, the same principle can be easily applied to professional or team conflict resolution. An “I Statement” is a way of constructing sentences that removes accusatory elements and focuses on the effect of a behavior or situation rather than the fault or failures of one party.

A classic example of this is the fighting couple. One of the two gets angry and yells. The other, feeling hurt, then says something along the lines of, “don’t yell at me!” The immediate reaction to this imperative will almost always be defensive. A couples counselor would usually tell the person to say something like, “I get scared when you yell, and I don’t like it.” The conversation is now about the very real effect that the yelling had.

In a corporate team setting, the use of “I statements” is usually not nearly as emotionally charged as in a marriage (I hope), but these kinds of statement are still very important. Using “I Statements” is a critical part of protecting the trust a team has in each other. Why? Because the substitute for them is accusations like the one above. Sure, no one is going to say, “don’t yell at me” in your business’ leadership team meetings, but that doesn’t mean they won’t inadvertently make small accusations that eventually erode trust.

I’m sure you’ve heard team members say things like:

  • you never responds to emails on time -> translates to -> I don’t think you’re reliable
  • don’t interrupt when I’m speaking -> translates to -> you’re rude or inconsiderate
  • you delivered that project two days late -> translates to -> you’re lazy or not good at your job

These small statements build up over time to create a culture in which people don’t have high opinions of each other. You can call it “touchy feely” or whatever you want, but that’s the truth. People, no matter how strong they seem, have fragile egos and are always on the lookout for ways to assume that their colleagues don’t respect them. It’s human nature. And, if you repeat an opinion enough (he’s lazy), you’ll start agreeing with it.

The human mind is a pretty amazing thing, but it needs to be protected from itself sometimes

 

Agreement v Acceptance

 As a leader, one of your key conflict resolution roles is mediating between disagreeing parties. This can mean stifling animosity between competing departments, finding the right solution during a strategic planning session, or even soothing ruffled feathers of C-level executives. Whatever the case, impartiality is one of your best tools here.

When mediating between parties, you’ll often find yourself employing the above tools. While they are invaluable as conflict resolution tools, they can, if you are not careful, lead to the appearance of taking sides. When you use these tools, be sure to use language that implies “acceptance” rather than “agreement.”

What do I mean by this? Let’s use an example to illustrate:

  • Sales Team Rep) The marketing team is always late with the materials we need to make our sales goals.
  • Marketing Team Rep) That’s become the sales team is always asking for thing at the last minute.
  • Leader) If it’s O.K., I’d like to clarify. So, the sales team asks for things last minute and that is what makes the marketing materials late?
  • Marketing Team Rep) Exactly.

The leader here has done a good job of getting a clear picture of the situation by verifying the details. And, by explicitly stating that the purpose was to clarify, the leader has avoided sounding accusatory. However, the mistake here should be obvious. The leader has restated the marketing team rep’s version of events as if they were facts. This makes it seem like the leader has taken sides or agrees with what the marketing team rep thinks.

Ideally, in situations like this you want to convey that you “accept” someone’s opinion. That means showing that you understand and respect their take on events without necessarily giving your own opinion on their validity. A better way of handling this conversation might look something like this:

  • Sales Team Rep) The marketing team is always late with the materials we need to make our sales goals.
  • Marketing Team Rep) That’s become the sales team is always asking for thing at the last minute.
  • Leader) If it’s O.K., I’d like to clarify. So, the marketing team feels as if sales team asks for things last minute, and that is what makes the marketing materials late?
  • Marketing Team Rep) Exactly.

By simply starting the verification question with “so you feel”, the leader has taken their own opinion out of the equation. 

 

Practicing

Not so much a tip about conflict resolution as it is a tip about anything you want to be good at. Practice is the key to improvement. So, if you want to be good at resolving and managing conflict in your organization, you need to practice.

 

 

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