Facilitating Conflict in Boards and Teams

You get a call.  Ostensibly, the request is couched as an innocuous “team-building day” for a senior team. But scratch beneath the surface, there is often unhelpful conflict that one or more of the group wants to work on and which has motivated them to get in contact.  The more I do, the more I learn. Here are some Notes to Self on facilitating conflict – a work in progress:

  1. Don’t take sides. I am at the service of the team and the organization and all members of it. Not one person. Be even-handed in the preparation. If you talk to one, talk to all.
  2. Don’t take one person’s perspective as “the truth”. No matter how charming, persuasive or well evidenced their arguments are, they are only a single perspective in the kaleidoscope.
  3. It’s their problem. Don’t own it for them. Don’t pathologise their stress. It will reduce your ability to assist.
  4. Build relationships in advance. They need to head towards the event positively, trusting you.
  5. Practice Unconditional Positive Regard.   Beneath negative behaviour and emotions, there is a positive intention. Help the participants to discover this in themselves and in each other.
  6. Help them to relax. Stress tightens the muscles and makes us less flexible (metaphorically too).
  7. Work from a positive frame. What is great about us, you, me? What is and has worked really well. Glass is half full.  Validation is a great platform.
  8. Self-awareness is the foundation of personal change. Personality and style models give people a framework and language for understanding self, others and interactions. It makes it easier to talk about some stuff initially. But we need to go deeper.
  9. Were all human.  Remember that even very senior people can get stuck in patterns of thought and behaviour that serve neither them nor the group. Don’t be afraid to explore and address this just because they have PhDs, fancy job titles and big salaries.
  10. Sometimes conflict is structural. It’s an expression of mis-alignment between functions, a knot in process or perverse incentives in the system. Explore it and do some problem solving work on the bits that don’t work. But don’t do it at the expense of the heart-stuff. To do so would be colluding in hiding the problem.
  11. Focus on how people work together, using specific examples of business problems if they serve that purpose. Don’t allow the purpose to be diverted into a more comfortable “business problems solving session”. Don’t let the tail wag the dog.
  12. Help them to meet and agree at the point of highest good. What do they all want in common? Use this as a destination, as a point of union between them and a benchmark in resolving differences.
  13. The heart is a more fundamental driver for most than the brain. Beneath our bullshit behaviours, we mostly want to connect, to give and receive support, to move forward together. If so, help them to articulate this.
  14. Psychopaths exist. I’ve had a couple in groups. Be honest within yourself about this. Don’t expect people with obsessive self-orientation to be great at collaboration or to be honest. Reframe them if you need to for the sake of the group.
  15. Don’t protect people. But do help the to express themselves positively and not attack.
  16. Help them to find practical alternatives to their dysfunctional routines.  Explore “when it goes wrong” and “how it can go right”. Do it with self-deprecating humour – from you and from them.
  17. Non-Violent Communication: Observe. Describe Feelings. Explain Needs. Make Requests. Most people don’t know about this!!! Practice, practice, practice.
  18. Scoring techniques can be a quick and successful way into the heart of the logical person. Get them to score honestly … Current job satisfaction, feeling supported by colleagues, our effectiveness as a group. Focus on “what is already working for you?” and “what changes would most help you move forward?” Honest scoring, positive expressions of change followed by agreements.
  19. High stakes, busy people can feel under attack (by demands, by dilemmas, by schedules). Part of the response to the attack is to become defensive. To defend, they can stop listening and close themselves off to the demands on them. Perhaps, do some work on non-defensive listening.
  20. Assist them to experience their inter-dependency. Not just say it. Experience it.
  21. Help them to be vulnerable – personally and professionally. It connects and strengthens the person and the group.
  22. Honest, two-way behavioural contracting: “Things you do which help, please maintain or increase. Things you do which don’t, please reduce or stop.”
  23. Assist them to make agreements they will keep. Ask them honestly to explain their level of intention to implement changes. Ask what would notch that up to the next level.
  24. Facilitate Personal Ownership.  Assist them to make agreements from an accountable and responsible perspective. E.g. Not “you’re undermining me” but “I am going to let you know when I feel undermined and make a positive request to get both of our needs met.”
  25. Intuition is where the wisdom is.  Help them to tap into and articulate their intuitive knowing. It’s where the greatest business intelligence is.