In this article you can find a summary of effective and proven strategies to handle conflict in meetings. This is a very useful skill and it’s a good idea to prepare in advance for such events.
Facilitating Conflict Meetings
If you are chairing a meeting, here are a number of ways to manage potential conflict effectively:
- Prepare the meeting well and have a clear agenda. If people see that you chair the meeting firmly and tightly against the agenda, they are less inclined to engage into conflicts on-the-side.
- Watch out for the early signs of conflict. It is much better to handle conflict proactively. To this end, monitor closely the dynamics of the meeting and watch the body language of participants. There are tell signs of tension, frustration and disagreements that usually precede a conflict. Watch-out especially for signs of nervousness, facial expressions of disagreement and so on.
- Drive clarity. Effective communication is key for a good meeting. It is not uncommon for a conflict to develop as a result of a misunderstanding. Use clarification questions to make sure everybody is on the same page.
- Deal with conflict immediately. Once you spot the clear signs of a conflict, you need to deal with it. Don’t let it develop in an uncontrolled manner. See the “meeting conflict resolution” section below for the specific strategies to apply, depending on the situation.
- Support a non-threatening environment. People often initiate conflict when they feel their position is threatened directly or indirectly by others. Ambiguity may also lead to this, as it is can also be perceived as threatening. Try to create a feeling of safe environment. Pay attention when the discussions take a turn that can make a participant or more feel threatened.
- Recognize the different types of conflict and act accordingly. Conflicts may be driven by different views, by different hidden agendas, but sometimes simply by personality clashes, different values and beliefs. In the latter cases, there is no point to attempt to make people like each other. Simply be firm in keeping the meeting on-track and ask everybody to focus on the specific agenda items.
- Be non-judgmental. Your role is to remain objective and consider the perspective of each party. Don’t take sides and support everybody to reach resolution.
How to Manage Conflict as a Meeting Participant
Here are a few tips to consider for when you don’t chair the meeting:
Manage stakeholders well. The best way to manage conflict is to preempt it. When you participate in high stakes meetings, in which you need to get approval or influence others to do something, start preparing the meeting well in advance. You need to get the support of the key stakeholders, to avoid any unpleasant surprises in the meeting.
Keep calm. In a meeting anything can happen. You can be taken by surprise by unfair criticism, you can be attacked by people from whom you expected support and so on. In all cases keep calm. When you stay cool your ability to manage challenging situations well is higher
- Be assertive. If other participants in the meeting attack you, don’t get defensive, not aggressive. Assertiveness is the most effective approach. Keep discussions factual and to the point and demand a professional and respectful approach in the conversation.
Should You Avoid All Conflicts? Can You Capitalize on Conflict to Get to Better Results?
Wherever there are several people, there will be conflicting points of view, so conflicts can’t be totally avoided. The interesting part is that via putting together ideas that approach a topic from various angles, sometimes you get to a solution that is better. So sometimes, conflict (handled in a professional manner) can lead to better results.
It is not conflict per se that needs to be avoided, but situation in which conflicts are not managed well. The results in such cases are unlikely to be positive.
Meeting Conflict Resolution
In order to manage conflict, you can put to good use the following strategies:
Drive focus on the problem
Conflict is often triggered or develops into personal attacks. Once the play is in this field, it’s impossible to control effectively the situation. You need to determine participants to refer to the problem, not to other persons. Even if the specific topic is about people, stick to the facts. Even if discussions become factual, there may still be different views on the facts. So the conflict may actually continue. However, dropping personal attacks removes the steam out of the conversation and conflicting points of view can be managed in a professional way.
Support actionable approaches
When a conflict arises, there is the tendency for people to enter a vicious circle. They express their disagreement, their unhappiness with how things are going and they argue with one another. Help participants focus on the next steps. What is the information that needs to be made available in order for the matter to be clarified? What are the actions that need to be taken in order for the blocking points to be removed?
Agree to disagree
There are instances in which it is simply not possible to reach an agreement among the parties present in the meeting. When it’s obvious that an agreement is not possible, there is no point in spending a lot of time arguing. Agree to disagree. Then, agree on the next steps in order to bring closure to that matter. For example, this may mean escalating the issue to the right level of management, so that a decision is made and the project can move forward.
Take things “off line”
If the conflict is only between two or more participants, but it doesn’t concern all members of the group, it’s better to take things “off line”. The same applies if the conflict is triggered by something totally unrelated to the agenda. The call of how appropriate this approach is should be made on a need basis.
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