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Resolving Conflict


July 2011

A leader acquires a new group and is immediately embroiled in a long-standing war. He navigates these difficult waters handily, winning praise from his boss. And from his coach!

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July 2011

Resolving Conflict

Tom Henschel

Two teams at war

Halfway through Jean-Claude’s coaching engagement, I was on the phone with his boss, Cary. My intention was to give him a brief update on the coaching. Much to my surprise, I heard Cary thanking me for helping Jean-Claude resolve the long-standing antagonism between the data management group that Jean-Claude led and the accounting group.

“The rift between those groups started long before Jean-Claude got here,” Cary said. “I never imagined this would be one of the outcomes of the coaching.”

“Well, I’d love to take the credit,” I said, “but Jean-Claude and I actually haven’t spoken much about this issue. I knew the two groups weren’t getting along but the coaching has focused on other issues.”

At our next session, I asked Jean-Claude what he’d done to bring the two groups together. Here’s what he told me. (Although I contributed very little to the success of his intervention, his story feels important to share: his approach is a great model for averting situations that could become costly and demoralizing.)

Within months of taking over the data management group, Jean-Claude heard complaints from his people about poor data coming from accounting. About the same time, he received a “nasty-gram” from an executive in accounting listing grievances about Jean-Claude’s data management team.

Jean-Claude quickly arranged a lunch with that executive from accounting. Going into that lunch, Jean-Claude had two goals: first, listen to all her grievances without being defensive, and second, get her permission to talk with the accounting people who were interacting with his group.

Listening at length

He achieved both goals and began what he laughingly called his listening tour. He met with small groups of accounting folks. He listened and took copious notes. When asking questions, he made an effort to sound inquisitive rather than attacking. When he got answers, he nodded and took more notes. He didn’t debate or clarify.

Privately, it was apparent to Jean-Claude that the accounting people didn’t understand what the data management group did. But he resisted explaining anything just yet; this was his listening tour and he stuck to that agenda.

Meanwhile, he was listening to his team’s complaints with fresh ears. He saw that his people didn’t understand the accounting group’s inner workings any more than the accountants understood his group.

Instead of explaining to his people what he’d learned, he began prepping them for the next stage.

“We’re going to come together so we can begin to understand each other,” he told them. “It will be important in those meetings to resist pulling out old errors and making it a big blame game. The purpose of the meetings is for us to hear their needs, and for them to hear ours, so both groups can get better results.”

From war to partnership

When Jean-Claude brought the teams together, he told them he felt he was standing on top of a wall dividing two warring countries. From his elevation he could see into both countries and understand roots of mistrust on both sides. He also understood that the two countries wouldn’t be able to truly cooperate until each could see over the wall into the other country. He told them he wanted them to listen to each other the same way he’d been listening to each of them.

One of the most profound moments in that first joint meeting was perhaps one of the simplest. Jean-Claude distributed copies of three reports his group had delivered to the executive team in the last 30 days. The room fell silent except for the turning of pages. When the accountants finally looked up, many of them said, “Now I understand why you’ve been wanting that set of numbers that way.”

After one more joint meeting, the issues were almost completely resolved. The wall that had divided them for so long had shrunk to a speed bump.

One final step

When Jean-Claude finished his story I told him his results were cause for celebration. I doubled my congratulations when I found out that everything in this story occurred in less than five weeks. That’s a speedy resolution to a long-standing conflict.

I did have one concern. I felt one final step may yet be unresolved: accountability.

“The first time things aren’t perfect, the blaming may start up all over again,” I told him. “As good as things are, I don’t think you’re all one big happy family yet.”

He laughed and agreed.

I encouraged Jean-Claude to have the groups address accountability. What would his group do if data from accounting were incorrect? And what would the accountants do if their old grievances resurfaced? Agreements between the groups about resolving future performance issues were critical if the détente was to hold.

Not surprisingly, as I made my suggestions, Jean-Claude took notes without debate or argument.

Because I wanted to be sure he could replicate this process in the future, I asked if he knew the steps he’d taken. He actually didn’t; he’d been running on instinct and intuition.

I told him, “I think your process has three specific steps. In addition, there are three specific behaviors. And,” I continued, “the steps and behaviors are so effective, you could apply them to individuals as easily as to teams.”

Here are three steps and three behaviors to help resolve conflict.

Three steps to resolve conflict

1 Acknowledge the problem

Hoping the problem will resolve itself is naïve. Prolonged avoidance of conflict is the opposite of The Look & Sound of Leadership™. The problem needs to brought into the open.

2 Discover mutual purpose

Both parties need to find a shared vision of how resolving the conflict will benefit them both. (Jean-Claude’s image of standing on the wall was one part of this step.)

Once found, leaders need to repeat the shared vision, simply and explicitly, to everyone on both teams. Repetition is important. Don’t assume people “get” it the first time they hear it; the shared vision will need to be spoken often.

3 Agree to new procedures for the future

Change is hard for everyone. New behaviors don’t sprout overnight. Everyone should agree how to hold each other accountable going forward if old—or new—problems arise.

Three behaviors needed to resolve conflict

1 Listen non-defensively

Accept reality: your team—or you!—are contributing to the problem in some way. True resolution only happens when both parties can respect each other’s concerns. That means both sides must listen without blame or argument. “Right” is irrelevant.

Non-defensive listening is often the hardest behavior to display consistently. Yet, when present, it is the behavior most likely to build trust and help resolve the conflict.

2 Be transparent

Share as much information as possible. The other party is not “the enemy.” Don’t assume they know what you do or what you want or why you want it.

3 Resist rehashing and blaming

People should only revisit past transgressions as a way of examining how things can be better in the future. If one party raises an old incident, they need to be able to own their part in contributing to the bad outcome.

Whether you’re dealing with fractious teams or warring individuals, these three steps, coupled with the three behaviors, will help everyone achieve The Look & Sound of Leadership.

Three books with great conflict resolution skills:
Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler
Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, Hee
Getting To Yes, Fischer, Ury, Patto

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