Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit.
In, “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” by Harriet B. Braiker

Do you have interpersonal tension on your team? Here is a Solution Focused approach to resolving it.

Recently, a company asked me to run a workshop for them. During a fact-finding call to establish the client’s situation and required meeting outcomes, I learned that two senior people involved in the workshop were not working well together. People had noticed tension between them in other meetings.

As the client’s outcome for the pending meeting was to build an effective working relationship between three teams, it was vital that the two leaders work effectively together during the meeting.

I suggested that I hold a pre meeting with the two leaders and the client arranged this. The following is an outline of the intervention that you can follow.

Intervention Outline

To establish a relationship with them, and to save time during the pre-meeting, I telephoned each leader to establish their view of the situation in terms of what they wanted.

I asked them three questions:

  • Imagine the pre-meeting works really well, what would your outcomes be?
  • What would you like to be different about the situation?
  • What would you and others notice is better if the situation improves?

You can adapt these, but note that I did not ask, “What are the issues?” or “Why is there conflict?” These would focus them on the problem and achieve little.

Before the meeting I wrote notes of their individual responses, and asked them to verify their own answers. I also wrote each answer on Post – it Notes (use a different colour for each question to give clarity), to enable me to analyse them.

My analysis revealed common themes and I mapped them visually to show the interconnections, (e.g. “Understand what we’re trying to achieve” and “Clearly understand roles”.)

On the day of the meeting, I displayed three flip charts with the mapped responses. When they arrived I had each of them talk about a positive topic for one minute to move their minds off work and to relax them.

Next, they reviewed their mapped responses, noting and discussing the common themes.

After this, they co-created a picture of the future, drawing what they would be doing when working really well together.

This produced a really constructive conversation, if not a terribly good picture! In such a situation it is useful to focus people on a third point (the picture), as well as each other.

From the picture, they identified five critical factors, e.g. “More conversations, fewer emails”, and wrote these on Post-it Notes.

They placed these five notes on a chart and I drew a scale from 1-10 for each factor, where 10 is the ideal for that critical factor.

I asked each of them to mark on the scale where they stand at present.

Importantly, they rated nothing below 3; this demonstrated something was already working in their relationship, as you would expect. Next, for each factor I asked “What is happening that moves you up to this point on the scale?”,to focus them on strengths. This produced some very constructive responses.

As a secondary part of this exercise, I also asked them to:

  • Identify and state three strengths they saw in each other. (This was also a way to affirm each other)
  • Explain three ways someone else would get the best response from them, e.g. “Use humour.”

These secondary questions are helpful ways to build the relationship further.

Finally, they identified together what would move them one step up the scale towards the created future, for each factor.  (“What has to happen to move you just one step up the scale?”).

They produced five actions to take before the teams met and left in good spirits.
So
What can we learn from this intervention?

  • Such an intervention is not about creating friendship; you are not expecting people to hug each other.  Rather, you are trying to build a relationship in which they can respect each other and work together for the good of the organisation.
  • The telephone call in advance gave time for analysis of answers, but it is important to allow them to make their own conclusions in the meeting.
  • There is little point in focusing on the cause of a problem in conflict situations; each party has their own view. Using the Solution Focus approach, which focuses instead on finding solutions, greatly reduces the potential for an “attack – defend” conversation.
  • Having them create the future together immediately starts a positive interaction and it is in interaction that we find solutions.

Action
Consider these questions:

  • What did you learn from this article?
  • How might you have run this intervention differently?

To Close
At the subsequent team meeting, the two leaders worked very well together and the conversations were wholly constructive. Despite some difficulties with a lack of time, we achieved significant outcomes. Feedback afterwards suggested that other people had noticed this improvement.

For the sake of a two-hour investment of time, we created a much better working relationship that could have a large and positive impact on the project.