As the leader of a team here are the seven minefields you need to avoid in resolving conflict within your team.

They Get Sucked Into The Drama

As a leader you always have to go first.  

In any situation the strongest emotion will dominate, you need to ensure that emotion is calm or you’ll get embroiled into the stories.  Human nature makes us pay more awareness to danger than anything else.  That means that usually the most panicked and anxious person in a conflict infects everyone else and it descends into chaos.

Great leaders have the calmness of a plan so they know where they are going.

Their calmness, clarity and confidence enable them to stay in control.  Their certainty rubs off on others and calms them down.  Mediators are brought in to solve conflict because in a chaotic and emotional situation they can bring calmness and lack of attachment to an outcome.

If you mind these seven minefields, you too have a process and do not need to be attached to a quick outcome.  

It’s important to know that a resolution already exists.  Ironically, the less you fixate on finding a solution and more honestly everyone engages in the process, the sooner it will emerge.  The biggest minefield is to panic and try to force a resolution.

The resolution should not come from you.

It will emerge, but if you impose one, you haven’t resolved the situation.  Instead you have created a new situation where you will be blamed for what emerges.  The natural level for them to interact will come about through their own journey.

Your primary job as leader is to unite your people.

You do this, by operating from controlling the context, not the interactions or behaviour.  That is, through your calm certainty that any problem can be resolved.  Because your task is to get to the truth.  Either it can be resolved or it can’t.  

Directives will not solve the problem, just postpone it.

They Lose Control Of The Context

The conflict is not yours.

It belongs to the two individuals.  However, when it is playing out on your watch, you can control the frame of how we approach conflict.  The central problem is they have a frame that conflict is dangerous.

Your frame should be that this is no big deal, just a problem to solve collaboratively.

Not as in being dismissive or not giving it your full attention.  But that conflict is a natural dynamic among any group of humans.  Handled badly it does undermine teams and ruin relationships, but when understood and embraced it strengthens relationships and teams.

We will sort this out.

Not me pulling rank.  Nor you growing up and sucking it up.  But by us trusting each other and becoming curious about the problem.

Start by separating the emotions from the problem.

We need to recognise and embrace the emotions felt, but our nervous systems can easily run away with us.  Because we are built biologically for the African Plains, not air conditioned offices or Zoom or Teams meetings.  Let’s remember that this is a blip and not the end of the world.

We only have to hold true to three states.

  1. We have to be honest to what we think and feel in order to find connection.
  2. It is our open-mindedness that will enable us to find the truth that transcends this conflict.
  3. It is in being collaborative that we get better.

Where the process will break is when one of these attitudes is blocked.

The frame dictates that it breaks because people have lost trust or they no longer feel safe.  Explore as far as you can, how you can make them trust or feel safer.  Some people because of their past experiences cannot and do not trust and so this process could break down.  

This is when it becomes a judgement call as to how well this person can integrate into a team and how you can resolve this, and future, issues.

They Try To Solve The Problem Before Solving The Moment

People fight because they assume too much about the other person.

When we go into fight or flight response we stop listening and talking.  We shout and fight.  Or run away and withdraw.

Dan Wile was a legendary couple therapist.  He said that many couples try to solve the problem without genuinely talking to each other.  They talk at each other.

His resolution was to say we may, or may not, solve the problem, but we can solve the moment.  

That is, we will actually start listening and have an actual conversation of curiosity, instead of shouting to be heard.

Step one then is to commit to get them talking.  To genuinely listen and seek to understand each other.  When people talk to the humanity in each other they open up, when they stop talking they demonise each other and go to war.

The real problem is that we think we are all in the same narrative.

When everyone has their own unique narratives.  That is the logic they are working from.  The metaphor we operate on is that we all inhabit the same planet.

A more accurate metaphor would be that we are all different planets in the same solar system.

When we can start talking without assumptions and instead learn the other person’s language and world, we can see the logic they operate from.  This is how we build understanding.  Understanding creates connection.

Connection creates trust and from there resolution is simple.

They Create Unnecessary Tension

Without even noticing it consciously we react to non-verbal cues.

Our sense of safety come as much from the environment and positioning as from the words said.  When your personal space is invaded, you feel threatened.  We have evolved reactions to threat.

Allan Parker is a genius Mediator who understands how nervous systems interact.  

When mediating, he avoids people sitting across from each other.  Straight on face to face positioning excites the nervous system.  We use this positioning when we square up to each other or before kissing.

It is the precursor to fighting or fornicating.

To resolve a conflict in the workplace we want to de-escalate and encourage calm and reasoned thinking.  To do this, he sits people alongside each other.  He uses exaggerated body language to discuss the problem as if it were on the table in front of everyone so participants are drawn to envisage the problem as something they are looking at collaboratively.    

Set out the discussion in a way that minimises eye contact and confrontation and you create an atmosphere where calm discussion is more likely.

They Only Focus On The Issue In Conflict

Einstein said that a problem can only be solved at a higher level of thinking than it was created on.

Conflict is a problem to be solved.  It happens on many levels at the same time.  The solution will be found by having the flexibility to go up and down the levels.  

I love the insight Howard Markman shared.

Arguments often erupt over trivial matters.  People have reacted because it is an issue that matters to them.  The reason it often becomes difficult to unravel is because there is a hidden issue they are really making a stand for… often unconsciously.

So there are three levels of depth

The eruption – what happened?

The Issue – what was it about?

The Hidden Issue – what did you make it mean?

For example…

Jane erupts one day at Jeff because he’s failed to complete some paperwork that she needs to issue an invoice and there’s a full blown fight.

She erupted because she’s fed up of not being able to do her job, but more than that she’s worried that so many of the salesman’s blase attitude could mean the company loses money.  If the company loses too much money they will have to lose staff.  Admin staff are likely to be the first casualties and so she sees her job as being at risk.

The hidden issue underpinning Jane’s over-reaction is that she is driven to seek security.  When she was six years old her family had to go into homeless accommodation for a while after her parents were evicted after being unable to pay their mortgage.  She panics when she feels insecure and lashes out from fear.

In another case, Dave lost it when one of his team was persistently late.

The cause of his over-reaction was that he valued professionalism.  He hated that this person would let down the team.  It bugged him that the others were being taken advantage of by having to cover for this team member.

The hidden issue is that Dave was demeaned and ridiculed by his drunk father.   Always having to be the shabby, bullied kid at school he sees any sign of disrespect as proving his father’s taunts that he’d never amount to anything.  He has spent his career working hard to try to drive out the deep feeling of inadequacy and here is someone still failing to give him the respect he feels he has earned.  

These may be enough to start a dialogue and bring understanding to both individuals.

What we want to do is understand the logic that drives the behaviour.  When we understand, we stop demonising the person as a Tyrant or Narcissist and we relate to them.  The reason reality stars become famous is because when we see someone’s story, we feel a connection.

When we feel connected, we trust.

If you need to look further I would explore;

The words or tonality people are reacting to.

The stand someone is making, what is it they are fighting for and why is it so important?

The circumstances as they see them?

The climate of the relationship – hos do they feel they have been treated or perceived by the other previously?

What motives they think the other person might have?

Where else in their life have they felt similarly and is there a pattern?  When did it start?

They Only Consider The Facts And The Here And Now

Often people have inbuilt minefields that can set them off.

People who have been through trauma can be triggered by anything that puts them back in the traumatic situation.  Whether you have been in a warzone or have a diagnosable condition or not, we have all been in situations that have embarrassed, shamed and humiliated us.  We have all picked up scars and reactions to certain dynamics.

Sometimes we aren’t responding to the person, but what they represent, such as authority or diminishing us in some way.

Humans have to live within a pack.  Our survival (of life as we know it) depends on our acceptance and status within the pack.  We live with an underlying fear of what other people will think because that could mean being exiled from our tribe.

We have grown up in the context of that fear and had examples when we felt insecure within our pack.

Dr Mario Martinez says that each of us is nursing one core wound from childhood that drives how we view and interact with others.  Those core wounds are;

  • Shame
  • Betrayal
  • Abandonment

Shame causes people to fear embarrassment and seek healing through being honoured in their relationships.

Betrayal leads people to feel anger at those that might let them down and they seek healing through loyalty in relationships.

Abandonment makes people feel isolated and alone and so they seek healing through commitment in their relationships.

They Don’t Understand The Currencies At Play

Everyone is at work for a reason.

The old economic ideal of rational actors has been proven flawed again and again.  Yes, people might come to work for money,  but they come for so much more.  There  are many ways to earn money so why does this work and why here?

Why do millionaires and billionaires who have no need for money often work harder and longer than everyone else?

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk will never need to earn another penny and yet they still work longer than most people.  They work because we seek more than money.  Money is no longer survival for most people, but a way of gaining more status and respect.

Why else do we pay 10 or 100 times as much for a branded clothing and shoes as we could buy an almost identical version for?

When you see someone’s bank account and credit card transactions you see what they value most.  Big houses, flashy cars and designer clothing are about telling people you’re a success.

Why do some people risk their life or health on daredevil activities?

Why do runners run so far that they ruin their knees?  We do what we do for deeper reasons that are significant in the narrative of our life.  Every interaction is framed within this narrative.

Within a conflict we have to understand the currencies involved.

What is this person seeking is the question that will unlock the power to motivating them to superior performance.  A clue is in how they spend their leisure time.  For example, football fanatics and avid concert/festival goers are often seeking the primal connection of communal identity.    

One way of thinking about this at the most simple level is to understand the three key universal drivers;

  1. Belonging
  2. Status
  3. Meaning

We seek to belong to a tribe we identify as our people.  Within that tribe we will seek status to be valued.  We will seek a meaning that goes beyond our self-interest as a way to feel or existence and time here mattered and made a difference.

When you understand how these play out in someone’s narratives you can often understand them more than they understand themself.

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