Originally published on January 17, 2010.

Whenever you have more than one human being on the same planet, in the same town or working in the same company there will be conflict. If there isn’t it’s because someone is not expressing their needs. (and yes, that’s true of intimate relationships also…except perhaps in the first few months) 🙂

There’s nothing wrong with conflict. It’s human nature. And it can even be fun!

Conflict in the workplace can be a productivity buster, so it’s a good idea to have a comprehensive policy and specific procedures in place to help all levels of staff develop communication skills and the ability to resolve disputes.

Here are my thoughts about what to include in your company’s  Conflict Resolution Policy:

Principles:

The company:

• Values human diversity and appreciates the individuality of all its employees and associates.

• Understands that conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships and business life.

• Views any conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow both individually and as a business.

• Commits to assisting its employees in resolving conflicts and challenges as promptly, peacefully and clearly as possible.

• Encourages and will provide opportunities for staff to develop good communication skills to deepen and expand communication, empathy and conflict resolution skills for the benefit of themselves and the business.

• Encourages all levels of staff to take personal responsibility for feelings, responses, and reactions in any given situation, adopting a “No Blame” approach.

• Encourages all levels of staff to seek resources for developing self-awareness

Guidelines to Individuals

• An essential component of conflict resolution is a willingness and ability to identify, name and own the feelings that are aroused internally and to communicate those feelings without suppression, denial, or blame. This process alone involves a commitment to being aware and honest with ourselves and cultivating a degree of self-reflection and self-management.

• All levels of staff are encouraged to attend in-house or outside communication skills training days, to assist in the growth and evolution of the company. Participation in these trainings allows for a common language when dealing with conflict.

• The conflict resolution process can occur between two parties or any number of people. This policy document exists to provide a framework for resolution between or among the parties involved.

• Confidentiality is essential for trust and safety. Participants are asked to not repeat anything that is specific and personal unless they receive permission from the person(s) involved.

• All feelings are acceptable when owned and expressed responsibly. The process of resolving conflict is not always pretty. It can get messy. Trusting the process itself and accepting that it is unpredictable and uncontrollable, allows participants to experience the “magic in the messiness.”

• When feelings of all involved parties are actively listened to, empathized with, and the underlying need that is not being met is identified, then the possibility for resolution appears.

• When there is clear difficulty between two or more staff and one party states “this is not my problem….you are on your own” – that is not acceptable. Each party is encouraged to hold an intention of self-reflection and ownership of personal feelings. Each may ask themselves “what is my part in this?”

Procedure:

• For any conflict, waiting a day or two before scheduling the conflict resolution meeting is suggested, to allow for clarity and reflection on the topic, and time to understand the feelings.

• If a conflict arises between two staff or a group of employees, the parties are encouraged to initially try to work things out on their own using self-reflection and the communication skills they have learned.

• If the two or more parties are unable to come to a resolution on their own or don’t feel comfortable (or “safe”) meeting one-on-one, they have the option of requesting the participation of other staff or the assistance of a facilitator, agreed upon by all participants.

• At times a conflict may not be easily defined. While the issue may feel connected strongly to one person, it may also feel like a “group issue,” in which case the person or persons with the issue have the option of requesting a “Resolution Group.” This group may be comprised of a specific staff group (such as the members of one department or work team), with the understanding that any specific member’s attendance is optional unless they have been identified specifically as someone involved in the conflict.

• The conflict resolution process continues (possibly in a series of sessions) until a resolution is found. If a conflict is irresolvable and negatively impacts the company, other alternatives will be explored, including external facilitation and/or arbitration.

• During participation in a conflict resolution meeting, participants are reminded to keep an open heart and mind, empathy and compassion, and a willingness to forgive and be forgiven. This may sound non-business-like but nothing is further from the truth. Businesses are made up of people and all people feel their best and work their best when they are heard and received with empathy and compassion. An open heart and open mind is the prerequisite stance for deep listening and understanding.

• Willingness to consider changing one’s perspective on the issue is especially helpful. Within the session, each party shall have the opportunity to state their issue or conflict. Each person is given time to speak their truth uninterrupted. Ideally, an in-depth conversation takes place where all aspects are addressed, all feelings and difficulties aired and each participant has the opportunity to respond.

The Simple Format:

• The person who initiated the meeting speaks first without interruption.
• The second person then speaks uninterrupted.
• Both parties have the opportunity to respond to each other.
• This is a self-responsible conversation that works best when it includes patience and respect.
• Progress will likely be stalled if participants are defensive and closed.
• Digging in your heels is not generally conducive to peacemaking.

Things to Remember during a Conflict Resolution Meeting:
• Breathe

• Listen deeply
• Practice empathy
• Open your heart
• Open your mind
• Try to identify your triggers (comments or behaviors of others that “push your buttons” and cause a strong emotional reaction in you)
• Own your feelings without blaming the other person for your reaction (in other words, take responsibility for your triggers)

Conflict Resolution Toolkit:

Members participating in a one-on-one or small group conflict resolution process may want to utilize any or all of the resources listed below:

Trusted Facilitator: A facilitator is sometimes unnecessary but is a valuable resource. For many conflicts, the facilitator can be a trusted colleague who may play the role of witness whose presence creates a safe space for dialogue. At other times an outside professional mediator is necessary to assist the conflicted parties. It is essential that the conflicted parties agree on the facilitator if it is a colleague.

Resolution Group: The Resolution Group approach is based on the belief that personal issues are often a microcosm of company issues and that an issue appearing to be between two people, may indeed impact the whole department or an entire company and involve a wider range of issues. It can be a very powerful experience for a group to work together or witness the resolution of a difficult conflict and the positive results often extend far beyond the resolution of that one issue. A Resolution Group also has the option of using a facilitator, though if the group members have had communication skills training it may be unnecessary. That decision can be left to the person initiating the meeting.

Talking Stick: The “Talking Stick” has been used by native people for centuries and is an effective tool for assisting the communication process. It can be used in a two-party conflict or with a group. Because of the number of people involved in a Resolution Group, the talking stick is a way to assure that each party has the opportunity to speak uninterrupted. This tool is used as follows: the person who initiated the meeting holds the stick or object and speaks first. As long as someone holds the stick they are not interrupted. When that person is finished speaking they place the talking stick in the center of the group. The stick is then picked up by whoever feels moved to speak next. This continues until the meeting feels complete.

Attunement: Taking time before and during the conflict resolution session for quiet reflection to allow for “inner guidance” on the subject. This may also sound too “woo woo” for a business environment, but it is simply taking a few moments to collect ones thoughts. Call it a “reflection moment” if you wish. We have all had those “flashes of insight” of unknown origin that provide an answer or a new perspective.

Appreciation Ceremony: This ceremony may be used to begin a session with a spirit of acceptance and appreciation. The group begins with a time of silence or a guided meditation. One participant is identified as the person being appreciated. It doesn’t matter who goes first but the group can draw straws if necessary. Each participant states something positive about that person – something they appreciate. This is repeated for each participant.

Specific Process Tools:

Reflective Listening/Paraphrasing: Ask the other party to repeat back to you in their own words what you just said. If they are unable to accurately express what you are trying to communicate, you can repeat what you said and then ask them to paraphrase again. This is a great tool for shedding light on miscommunications and having the opportunity to practice deep listening and empathy. This is something a facilitator might suggest during the session, especially if the two parties are at an impasse.

Role Reversal: Switch roles and “play act” as if you were the other person and speak from their perspective. Then they do the same “pretending” to be you with your thoughts and feelings.

Other tools and practices from Nonviolent Communication Training

When it Works: Group Wisdom and “The Shift”

• The resolution process can sometimes seem “complete” or “good enough,” yet one or more participants may sense that perhaps there is more. More to be aired; more information needed; more paraphrasing and mirroring back for clarity; more time for quiet reflection. It is therefore suggested that wrapping up the session not be rushed, or that scheduling another meeting to work more on the conflict not be decided too quickly.

• Often when it might seem that there is much more to work through, a “shift” is only a few moments away. The “shift” may or may not happen but is an interesting phenomenon. The “shift” is an epiphany experience that happens to one or more participants. It can come at any moment and is an “aha!” moment of clarity that was not present the moment before. This “aha!” of true understanding of what the other person is experiencing or feeling, can shift one’s perspective dramatically.

• A shift in perspective (usually outside of the box of our own beliefs or agenda) can result in a feeling of connection and compassion for the other person, as well as some form of “surrender” from one or more parties. This “surrender” is by no means about giving in or resignation, but about “letting go” of tightly held ideas and defensiveness.

• This new perspective can shift one’s perception of the issue and of the other person. A new perception can instantly “resolve” the issue by dissolving the separateness of individual agendas. This shift is amazing to witness and even more amazing to personally experience. This phenomenon may not appear every time, but with openness and willingness, there is fertile ground where “shift happens.”

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There you have it – a basic outline of principles and procedures.

Be a peacemaker in your company and in the world.

You have my permission to use any or all of what I have spelled out here, to amend or develop your company’s conflict resolution procedure. Or send a link to this article to your boss!

I know there are things I left out. Add more to your process and leave me a comment with your ideas. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s to messy conflicts, open minds, great communication, and powerful peacemaking!

P.S. I’m available to help your company write its conflict resolution procedure and other policies. Get in touch and we’ll talk. (with or without a stick!)