Simple Tips For Managing Healthy Conflict In Meetings

If you’re having truly productive meetings, your team is experiencing conflict. If you disagree, I’m afraid your meetings probably aren’t as productive as you’d like. Either that, or you aren’t aware of the conflict. Most of my readers, though, are well aware that having conflict in their meetings is a great thing. Healthy conflict resolution brings about effective solutions at an efficient pace. That’s the ideal for any business.

I always encourage my readers and clients to pursue healthy conflict. I call it “chasing the danger.” Whenever someone feels uncomfortable or off put by a topic, that means it’s time to pursue the topic.  And while I would never encourage you to push someone on a personal issue (at least not at work), in a good leadership team meeting like the EOS® Level 10 Meeting™, the team leader knows that chasing the danger usually leads to smoking out a problem that can then be solved.

I tell my clients that a business that is really going to succeed almost always follows this very simply guideline:

Discomfort -> Issue Discovery -> Healthy Conflict -> Resolution -> Progress

If your team doesn’t follow this, you’re avoiding issues. And avoiding issues is a surefire way to sink your business. 


Healthy Conflict

This phrase is where most people get caught up. I’m both a trained and certified EOS Implementer and a trained Conflict Resolution Specialist. I’ve had enough experience with conflict that I know the strategies for keeping it healthy and avoiding the pitfalls of unhealthy conflict. However, not all of my clients or readers have the time or inclination to pursue that kind of training. 

To help out my clients and readers, I’ve put together this short blog entry on managing healthy conflict during meetings. The goal here is to help you find the strategies that work for your team, so you can pursue growth and break through the profit ceiling.

Most team leaders should know what healthy conflict looks like, but here’s a quick overview:

Now that we are all on the same page, let’s get to the ways to manage this conflict in the conference room.

Step 1: Begin Immediately

I mean this in both senses of the word. First, you should start using the tips below as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more unhealthy conflict you risk. Second, you should always meet conflict head on, rising to the challenge of creating healthy conflict sooner rather than later.

This doesn’t mean you should always drop what you are doing to duke it out over whatever issue has come up. Rather, it means you should immediately make the decision to meet this conflict. In a business that runs on the Entrepreneurial Operating System® this usually means putting the issue on the Issues List™ so the team remembers to talk about it later. However, in your business it can be as simple as taking a note to schedule a meeting about the issue later. 

However you approach it, make sure you are letting the team know that you plan on dealing with this issue, and soon. Don’t let the assumption that conflict can be avoided take root.

Step 2: Define The Issue And Stick To That

This is a deceptively difficult step to take. On the surface you may say, “We are having a discussion about our insurance provider.” But, defining exactly what that means, and making sure the team does not veer off from your very narrow definition takes practice.

Let’s look at an example to understand how that happens:

  • A) I want to talk about the insurance provider.
  • B) The increased rates are certainly putting a strain on our salary budget.
  • C) And I don’t know if their benefits are comparable to other providers in the area.
  • A) I really like the benefits package they have, actually.
  • C) Well then why did you bring it up in the first place?
  • A) I didn’t. 
  • B) The salary issue? Can we please talk about that.

While this example is cartoonishly simple, it should illustrate the point. The team never really defined what they wanted to discuss. Because the definition was broad (insurance provider), the discussion was broad. You probably already see the inevitable result of this conversation coming. The team will name 100 issues relating to the insurance provider. None of those issues will actually get solved. And, person A will probably walk away annoyed that the one, very specific thing they wanted to talk about got ignored.

That’s a textbook example of unhealthy conflict. When discussions get off topic or don’t address the actual issue at hand, parties feel significant frustration. Everyone in the room will begin to feel like their needs are being ignored. That leads to contempt, and contempt is the team killer.

Don’t let this happen. Instead, follow our rule of “saying it in a sentence.

When an issue or conflict comes up, ask the person who raised it to define the issue in a single sentence. If there are any questions about further defining the problem, people should ask them until everyone understand exactly what issue needs to be solved. Once they do, you can effectively steer the conversation away from distractions and encourage discussion on the topic at hand.

Step 3: Encourage assertiveness

As I’ve said, contempt is the team killer. And, nothing builds contempt as fast as feeling like your opinion is not being heard.

For some people this is never a problem. They just won’t shut up. They talk and talk and talk, walking all over other people’s sentences. However, not everyone feels comfortable being assertive with their opinion. People who have a fear of conflict or assertiveness might display behaviors like:

  • Immediately compromising
  • Over-compromising
  • Stating an opinion, but not defending it when someone disagrees
  • Raising an issue that is important to them, but not weighing in on the proposed solution

All of these behaviors are conflict avoidance behaviors. That person is communicating that they are uncomfortable being assertive with their opinion, because they don’t want to be in conflict with someone in the room. Sometimes that is out of shyness, sometimes just out of politeness. Whatever the case, it’s your job as a manager to make sure their opinion is not just heard, but respected and considered.

When someone on your team displays these behaviors, you have several solutions. I suggest taking these steps in order:

  1. Talk to the person outside of the meeting and ask if they had something they wanted to say. Make it clear their input is not just valuable, but necessary.
  2. Ask that person direct questions pertaining to issues you know are important to them. Do so during meetings so they have the chance to speak up.
  3. Thank them or show praise for their input when they offer it freely.
  4. When this person gets into a discussion with another team member, be sure you are actively listening to both sides. Use these conflict management tips to show that you are listening and to support their assertiveness without simply agreeing with their opinion.
  5. Ask your team members to take active listening training

Step 4: The Walk In Their Shoes Approach

Some tropes are tired; others are tried and true. Walking in another person’s shoes is about as tried and true as it gets. 

Unhealthy conflict in the workplace usually arises from one of four sources: conflict of interest, conflict of resources, interpersonal relationships, and unclear definitions of responsibility. The wonderful thing about a business running on EOS, is that 90% of the time, three of these conflicts are easily addressed by a change in perspective. If you’re building a culture that truly represents to core values of your company, your team will have a unified vision, a goal they are all working towards and an agreed upon way of getting there.

If you don’t have those things, you may want to do some work around building a Vision/Traction Organizer™ for your team. Why is this so important?

A team that has all agreed to pursue a common goal is going to find conflict primarily in how they go about achieving it. The members of that team will not always understand each other’s roles or the departmental needs. That makes it easy to put your own needs above the needs of others, not because a team member is selfish, but because they are focused on what their team needs to achieve the mission.

Often, laying out the needs of both involved parties lets them see the bigger picture. Maybe the sales team suddenly understands why they can’t get three new members, the operations team just lost a key engineer. Or, the marketing team feels like they should be in control of sales calls until the sales team explains how critical the personal connection with clients is. Whatever the case, if your team is aligned towards a goal, a bit of perspective goes a long way towards health conflict resolution.

The one conflict origin that will be  a problem is a conflict of interest. If someone on your team has competing interests, it means they either misunderstand or do not support the mission of the team. In that case, it’s time to have the conversation around what it means to be a member of your organization.

Playing the paraphrasing mediator (repeating team members and using accepting not a greeing language)

I recently wrote about using active listening and conflict management techniques to increase productivity and team healthy. Using the paraphrasing mediator technique is one of the strategies I outlined in that article. Because I recently wrote about it, I won’t go into too much detail, but it is too valuable of a tool to simply not put on this list.

The simple version is that, as a manager, it’s your job to ensure that everyone at the table understands and accepts the view points of everyone else. One of the great tools in your tool belt is paraphrasing. You simply repeat what the person said in different words to ensure that you correctly understood it, while assuring them that you are listening and seeking to understand. The snag is making sure you are using language that shows you are understanding and accepting without using language that sounds like you’re agreeing. If you start sounding like you are agreeing, you are taking sides.

Again, this is the short version. Read the detailed version here.

Step 5: Redefining Healthy Conflict As Progress

In some cases, people just don’t handle conflict healthily. Some individuals, despite all of their great qualities, feel like they’re playing a zero sum game. Even if they don’t consciously recognize what they are doing, they are out to win.

When you have a team member like this, it can be tempting to want to just avoid conflict with them. And that’s understandable. However, as we’ve covered, conflict is a valuable tool that helps the team discover the best course of action.

In order to help this team member (or really any team members) adjust to a healthy conflict environment, I suggest the “conflict as progress” approach. In this approach, you simply seek to redefine what is happening in the room. From a strategic level, you are attempting to separate the viewpoints from the people that hold them, removing the personal attachment to an opinion and allowing the team to consider it objectively. This helps eliminate the idea that one person will be right and another wrong. Instead, the whole team is simply considering options laid out on the table.

Tactically, this can be a little bit trickier to pull off. 

My first suggestion to readers is that they use deflective description. Rather than letting the person that holds the viewpoint describe it, you select someone else in the room to act as the torch bearer, usually yourself. This person summarizes both viewpoints using language that implies they own both sides. Here’s an example:

  • A) We should paint the office green
  • B) We should paint the office blue
  • Torch Bearer) OK. I think we have two options. I see blue and green as the two real options here. How does the team feel about green as an option? Also, how do we feel about blue? 

Again, this simple example shows how the manager takes control of the discussion before it becomes about two people with dissenting standpoints. Instead, it is now about blue or green.

Step 6: Propose A Solution

Clients of mine will know that I feel very strongly about aiming to solve issues, not just talk about them. 

One of the reasons I tell clients is that efficiency comes from acting, not talking. The more time you spend talking about an idea, the less actual work you are getting done.

The reason I don’t always mention is that discussing an idea to death is a sure fire way to create unhealthy conflict. Problems without solutions are a source of incredible stress. Stress creates frustration and brings out our instincts. And instincts get in the way of good, healthy conflict.

Keep in mind when discussing an issue that you should always be focused on solving it, not rehashing the same old arguments again and again. Solving creates progress. Rehashing just causes people to dig in deeper.

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