The best conflict resolution strategy you’re not using

April 20, 2021
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As a team lead, you want to build an open and inclusive environment so everyone on your team feels comfortable bringing their full selves to work. There are a lot of strategies you can take to foster this type of workplace culture—like encouraging team collaboration and scheduling team building activities—but what happens when conflict arises between two of your team members? 

Resolving conflict at work can be overwhelming, especially if you haven’t dealt with it before. But addressing conflict directly is often the best way to make your team members feel supported and heard. 

Sometimes, it can feel like conflict is none of your business, and you might want to let your team members resolve it themselves. But ignoring conflict can cause it to fester and potentially lead to a toxic work environment. Instead, conflict resolution techniques can help you align different perspectives and turn a challenging interpersonal conflict into a win-win scenario. 

If you’re unfamiliar with managing conflict in the workplace, that’s okay. We’re here to help. In this article, we’ll help you develop your conflict resolution skills through the application of conscious leadership models. That way, when a conflict does come up, you can be confident that you have the right tools to support your team. 

What is conflict resolution? 

Simply put, conflict resolution is the process of resolving workplace conflicts in order to foster an open, honest, and inclusive workplace. If conflict does arise between one or more team members, workplace conflict resolution strategies can help you make each team member feel heard and supported. With conflict resolution strategies, you can work towards a solution that works for both parties. 

Learning how to resolve conflicts is a key part of good leadership. Embracing your role and being assertive can help you manage conflicts at work and prevent a disagreement or misunderstanding from ballooning into a larger problem. Addressing conflict when it crops up can also help you maintain an open and honest workplace culture. 

Read: What to do when conflicts at work happen

The difference between conflict and disagreement

When we say conflict, we don’t mean disagreement. In fact, disagreement is a critical part of good teamwork and healthy team collaboration. A critical part of team collaboration is encouraging your team to be open and honest with each other. When your team members disagree, it means they feel comfortable sharing their opinions and challenging one another in order to co-create the best solution—so, in small doses, disagreement can be a good thing. 

When does it become a problem? Disagreement turns into conflict when one or more team members feel anxious and unable to be their full selves at work. That might mean a disagreement got personal, or that the disagreement uncovered a larger issue on the team. In those cases, you can use conflict resolution strategies to better understand the causes of conflict and co-create a solution with your team. 

The difference between conflict and disconnection

Whether they realize it or not, your team members are constantly collaborating. As a result of their regular collaboration, team members form natural connections—which manifest in their ability to work together, communicate openly, and problem solve. 

Interpersonal conflict between two team members can sever that connection. Instead of being able to clearly communicate, there’s something coming between two or more people. The cause of the rift is a conflict—but the true problem is disconnection. Disconnection means you can’t collaborate and communicate clearly. In order to solve disconnection, you have to resolve the conflict.

Developing your conflict resolution skills...

... is an ongoing process. You likely won’t become a master at conflict resolution after reading this article or attending a workshop—and that’s okay. Like all interpersonal skills, conflict resolution skills take time to build and develop. Building these skills is a proactive process. By learning about conflict resolution, you are setting yourself up for success in the future, so when a conflict does come up, you know how to handle it.

During the conflict resolution process, it’s important to remember that everyone is doing the best they can. Always approach a situation with an open mind, and encourage your team to do the same. Asking good questions and listening to understand can help you bring empathy to the situation, identify common ground between the involved parties, and find a solution to the problem.

Read: A simple shift to change how you work

This also means you shouldn’t be afraid to lean on your manager or HR department if necessary. A conflict may arise that you’re not equipped to manage on your own, and sometimes the best thing you can do is ask for help. Keep in mind that the most important thing to do during the conflict resolution process is to help your team members succeed—whatever that looks like. 

Communication and interpersonal best practices

No matter what type of conflict (or conflict resolution process) you’re addressing, there are some interpersonal communication best practices you should learn—and encourage your team to learn. Like conflict resolution skills, these skills take time to learn. By intentionally bringing these practices to any conflict conversation, you’re helping to co-create possible solutions more easily. 

Encourage “I” statements

“I” statements are feeling sentences that start with “I” instead of “you.” By starting a sentence with “I,” you are centering the statement on your experience, instead of projecting an idea on someone else. 

For example, imagine your team was in a brainstorming meeting, and you offered an idea that didn’t get incorporated into the brainstorming document. Instead of saying “You didn’t acknowledge my idea in the meeting,” you might say “I was hurt when my idea wasn’t added to the brainstorming document.” In the second sentence, you are explaining how the situation impacted you—instead of projecting someone else’s actions. 

Learn to differentiate between intent and impact

Understanding the difference between intent and impact can help team members see their actions through the other person’s eyes. Intent is what the person meant when they did or said something. On the other hand, impact is what the person on the receiving end felt. During the conflict resolution process, it’s important to understand both intent and impact. 

For example, imagine a teammate reorganized your project plan. The intent might have been to make the project plan more organized—but the impact could be that you were hurt that the person did this without your permission. Ultimately, impact matters more (because you’re the one feeling hurt), but understanding the original intent can give you some insight into your teammate’s point of view and improve communication in the future.

Focus on the facts, not stories

Facts vs. stories” is a conscious leadership technique. “Facts” are things that have actually happened—things that a video camera would pick up on. On the other hand, “stories” are your personal interpretation of the facts.

For example, imagine you and your teammate agreed on a delivery date for a task, but your teammate didn’t finish the task in time. The fact is that the agreed-upon deadline was missed—a story you might make up is that your teammate doesn’t respect your time or doesn’t think this deliverable is a priority. Even though the story feels real to you, it might not be the reason for the missed deadline. Maybe your teammate had too much on their plate and the work slipped through the cracks—or maybe their dog got sick and needed to be rushed to the vet. Who knows!

Separating facts from stories can help prevent you from jumping to conclusions. And sharing the facts and stories of a particular situation can help you express your point of view in a particular conflict situation in order to get to the truth.

Using the Clearing Model for conflict resolution

At Asana, we follow the Conscious Leadership Group’s training to become better interpersonal communicators and collaborators. As part of conscious leadership, you and your team can practice acknowledging a feeling and then releasing it. This might feel awkward at first, but as a leader on your team, it’s important to create a safe space where your team can feel comfortable. Being honest about your feelings can help you move toward a more open and creative place. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, that’s okay—we’ll walk you through how to get there.

One technique that conscious leaders use is called the Clearing Model. Clearing can help you overcome disconnection and re-establish connection. A key tenet of the Clearing Model is to let go of being right and take responsibility for your own actions.

The Clearing Model is most effective when used directly by two people. As the team lead, we encourage you to teach your team the Clearing Model so they’re ready to use it if a conflict or disconnection does arise.

Watch: How to use the Clearing Model

The benefits of the Clearing Model

There are a wide variety of effective conflict resolution strategies out there—but we use the Clearing Model because of the model’s emphasis on solving disconnection and re-establishing collaboration. In particular, the Clearing Model:

  • Encourages openness and curiosity, instead of disconnection

  • Uses open-ended questions instead of statements

  • Uses dialogue to solve disconnection

  • Offers a structure for your team to practice and learn

  • Emphasizes taking responsibilities for your actions

  • Recognizes that there is more than one valid perspective or solution

Before using the Clearing Model

The Clearing Model isn’t perfect for every situation. Before getting started with the Clearing Model, make sure both parties are willing and able to let go of being right and answer the following question: Can each person honestly say that they value connection more than they value feeling right? 

It can take a while for team members to honestly answer “yes” to that question. Consciously leading is about feeling your feelings and using those feelings to make better decisions. Joanna Miller, Lead of Organizational Effectiveness and Coaching at Asana, tells us there are times where you can’t let go of being right.

So: what should you do if a teammate prioritizes being right? Joanna tells us that this decision shouldn’t be viewed in a negative light. Instead, you can use that knowledge as a data point. Why might the team member feel like being right is more important? Have they been unable to build a connection with the team? Is there potentially a better role or team for them to be on? Understanding their priorities can help you co-create the best solution for this team member. 

How to use the Clearing Model

The Clearing Model is a conscious leadership strategy that helps you re-create connection—and there’s a script to guide you through the process.

In our conversation with Joanna Miller, she walked us through how to use the Clearing Model in our work lives. To explain how the Clearing Model works, Joanna created a hypothetical situation that the two of us might be in, and how we might use the Clearing Model script to communicate and resolve that situation. 

The Clearing Model follows a tight script to help both parties minimize emotions and deviations and get the best resolution possible for both people. After resolving to co-create a solution together, the person who requested the clearing presents the issue they would like to address. After explaining their facts, stories, and wants, the person listening has a script to respond and understand. Together, this is called clearing

Download: Clearing Model handout

Step 0: Create resolution together

Before you can get started on the Clearing Model, make sure both people are committed to solving this disconnect together at this time. There are three parts to this resolution that both parties should be able to commit to:

  • I commit to curiosity and letting go of being right

  • I commit to taking 100% responsibility for the issue

  • I commit to creating a win-for-all resolution

If either team member can’t honestly answer “yes” to these three questions, postpone the Clearing Model conversation until they can. When team members can answer “yes,” it means they’re willing to bring mindfulness, openness, and curiosity to the clearing. 

Step 1: Affirm the importance of the relationship

Before actually diving into the issue, it’s important for the person who requested the clearing to affirm the importance of this relationship. Keep in mind that, if the relationship wasn’t important, there would be no need to clear. The very act of clearing is a way to honor and value the relationship.

This is when the person who asked for the clearing acknowledges that there is something they want to clear so that they can have open lines of communication in this important relationship. That person should say:

  • “Something has come up that I’d like to clear with you. I want to have open lines of communication because our relationship is important to me. Thank you for being here for this.” 

Step 2: Share your facts

Like we mentioned above, in conscious leadership, we call objective observations facts. Facts are objective truths—these are things that neither person should have a problem agreeing on. 

At this point, Joanna explained the Clearing Model with an example. She began:

  • “The facts are we were both in a team meeting last week where I presented my ideas for a new project. You gave one-word answers.” 

Step 3: Share your stories

The other part of facts are stories—things you personally infer based on the facts. Stories are always personal, and in conscious leadership, we say they’re made up. This doesn’t mean stories aren’t important—stories are how we engage with the world, and they can be incredibly beneficial at times. For example, when you see a cherished friend smiling at you, the story you tell yourself is they’re happy to see you. Stories include how we interpret body language and navigate nonverbal communication. 

But during a clearing, it’s important to share your stories in order to offer your perspective on the objective facts. In our conversation, Joanna continued:

  • “A story I made up is that you gave one-word answers because you didn’t think my ideas were good.” 

Step 4: Share your feelings

Facts and stories influence your feelings on a particular situation. When you share your feelings, you’re sharing the impact the facts and stories had on you. 

In our conversation, Joanna said:

  • “I’m feeling sad because you seemed less engaged with my presentation. I’m also feeling scared that my project won’t be approved because I know how influential you are on our team.”

Step 5: Share what you want

During step five, you have a chance to share what you want the other person to know. Sharing what you want is not a time to share what you want the other person to do—rather, it’s a chance for you to take ownership and share what you want the other person to know about you. 

In our conversation, Joanna said:

  • “I want you to know that I value your opinion.” 

Step 6: Explain how you created disconnection

Step six is possibly the most important part of the Clearing Model. This is your chance to take responsibility for the disconnection, and take ownership for what happened between you and the other person. Think of step six as your chance to share how you created a disconnection. 

In our example, Joanna said: 

  • “One way I contributed to this disconnection is by not sharing the presentation for you to read ahead of time.”

Step 7: State your projection (optional)

You don’t always have to do this step, but in some cases, it can be helpful to state your projection—that is, the part of you that you’re projecting onto the other person. By stating your projection, you can show how the stories you’ve created are more connected to your life experience than to anything the other person might be doing. 

While she was walking us through the Clearing Model, Joanna said:

  • “The part of me I see in you that I have an aversion to is being quick to judge other people’s ideas.”

Next: The script for the person who is listening

After the person who is clearing is done sharing their facts, stories, wants, and disconnection, the person listening has a chance to engage and continue the conversation. 

During the Clearing Model, the person listening should be listening to understand. Listening to understand—sometimes called reflective listening—is an active listening technique. Instead of listening to respond, reflective listening asks the person listening to repeat back the information they’re hearing in order to allow both people to move forward with a shared understanding.

Step 8: Paraphrase what you’re hearing

At this point, it’s the listener’s job to repeat what they’re hearing—without modifying or adjusting what the other person said. There are three steps to paraphrasing:

1. “What I hear you saying is…” 

This is the listener’s chance to repeat what they’re hearing as closely as possible. In our conversation with Joanna, we said:

  • “What I hear you saying is I gave one-word answers during your presentation last week. The story you told yourself is that I wasn’t engaged in your presentation, which made you feel sad and scared because you value my opinion and you’re worried your project idea won’t be approved if I dislike it. You contributed to this disconnection by not sharing the pre-reading with me, and your story may have been influenced by the part of you that is quick to judge other people’s ideas.” 

2. “Is that right?”

After sharing, the listener should ask if their paraphrasing is correct. If not, Joanna has a chance to adjust or repeat some part of it. 

3. “Is there more?”

Finally, the listener should ask if there’s more. By asking if there’s more, the listener is displaying openness and curiosity to learn as much as they can about the other person’s feelings and situation. 

As Joanna told us—there’s nearly always more. Sometimes we don’t say exactly what we feel. Other times, the Clearing Model can bring out additional nuances. For example, after we asked, “Is there more?” Joanna said: 

  • “Yes, another way I contributed to the disconnection is by not sharing the meeting agenda with the team ahead of time.”

If the person does share additional information, repeat it back to them and ask if that paraphrasing is right and if there’s more. Repeat these steps until there isn’t more.

Step 9: Confirm the other person is clear

Once the other person has shared any additional information and you’ve repeated everything back to them, the last step is confirming they’ve said everything they needed to say. You can do this by asking “Are you clear?” 

If the person says no, go back to the “Is there more?” step and continue until they share all of their feelings. 

Step 10: Align on any next steps

Sometimes, the clearing may have unearthed action items that need to be taken. Make sure you both agree and understand what those next steps are, in order to avoid any future disconnection. 

For example, after our conversation with Joana, an action item would be to read through Joanna’s proposal and share in-depth feedback via email within two business days.

Step 11: Share appreciation for the clearing

The last step you can take as the listener is to thank the person for coming to you and working to clear the issue. Using the Clearing Model takes effort from both sides—and by initiating the Clearing Model, the person came to the table willing to let go of being right and co-create connection together. 

Step 12: Addressing any issues the listener might have

If the listener has any issues, you can also reverse roles and use the Clearing Model again. However, we recommend waiting at least one hour before doing so. Waiting to address the issue until a later date can help both people best internalize the clearing they just did. It can also help them approach any future clearing conversations with mindfulness. 

Conflict resolution in the workplace isn’t easy

Even with a great process like the Clearing Model, developing your conflict resolution skills takes time. In addition to developing these skills, make sure you’re practicing good workplace communication. Encourage your team to openly offer and receive constructive criticism, and always support team collaboration. Over time, these workplace practices will not only make it easier for you to resolve conflict—they may also make conflict less likely to happen in the first place.

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