Negotiating effectively with colleagues can be more challenging than dealing with outsiders. Conventional wisdom advises addressing team conflict by staying focused on tasks and avoiding relationship issues. Yet a case study of conflict management by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Diana McLain Smith of The Monitory Group concludes that this approach to dispute resolution works only when the issues are “cool” ones that can be resolved through objective analysis.
The researchers found three common symptoms of “hot conflicts,” which are usually prompted by differences in underlying belief systems, interests, and values:
- Team members persist in arguing the same points.
- When the team reaches impasses, talks get personal. Accusations may be spoken out loud, and members may speculate privately about one another’s motives.
- Once negative attributions take hold, emotions flare and progress halts.
Resolving Conflict Using 3 Specific Dispute Resolution Skills
The authors discovered that management teams can resolve hot conflicts by integrating three specific skills.
First, engage in individual self-management, or “the ability to examine and transform the thoughts and feelings that hijack one’s ability to reason calmly when conflicts heat up.” (See also, A Case Study of Conflict Management: Family Conflict Resolution Lessons from the Home).
Second, mutually manage conversations so that taboo topics and feelings can be raised without fear of emotional eruptions. That requires deft framing and a willingness to find the concern beneath seemingly irrational comments. (For more negotiation tips on how to frame the conversation, see also International Negotiations and Agenda Setting).
The first two practices support a third skill: managing team relationships for the long term, which requires trust building and investing in the key individual relationships, specifically those that lie on “organizational fault lines” where intrafirm conflicts occur. (See also, Negotiation Examples and Negotiation Techniques: Six Strategies for Building Trust in Negotiations).
It also requires shared appreciation of the dynamic quality of relationships: how “what I say affects what you think, which affects what you say and then what I think next, and so on.” Without that kind of insight, each teammate will feel blameless for the problems that plague the group.
How have conflict management skills helped you in a negotiation? Let us know in the comments.
Adapted from “Resolve Hot Topics with Cooler Heads,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, May 2007.
Originally published in 2011.