Recently, a participant in a training class I was leading shared a story about a standing conflict between two people on her team. As she described the problem, she made frequent reference to the rudeness and aggressiveness of one of the parties.\
Based on her description of the conflict, it seems pretty clear that both parties have behaved in ways that caused specific business problems. For example, the breakdown in communication caused by the unresolved conflict has resulted in poor customer service as the two parties fail to meet client needs.
The business leader who asked how to move this conflict forward is a committed, energetic leader who has the best interest of her employer, the members of her team, and her clients in mind. She is hard-working and focused on results. Her inability to resolve this conflict has created a great deal of stress for her.
Unfortunately, she has defined the problem in terms of her interpretations of behaviors rather than in specific behavioral or business impact terms.
Describing the conflict in terms of rudeness and aggressiveness gives the parties in the conflict an “out” when this leader attempts to resolve it. The team members can hide behind self-justifying explanations that make the conflict entirely the other party's fault. The conflict discussion is locked in the world of interpretation and emotion – two minefields that will scuttle any attempt at resolution.
As we discussed this issue, I suggested that she define the conflict in terms of the specific behaviors each party exhibited and what impact those behaviors had on both the other party and business results. For example, rather than saying that one party “left rude notes for the other,” this leader could say that party B felt threatened by the notes left by party A and that the resulting communication breakdown caused by party B avoiding party A was negatively impacting customer service.
Focusing on behaviors rather than interpretations can encourage both parties to accept responsibility for their contribution to the conflict. Once the conversation moves from a debate over each party's intentions and feelings to one focused on developing a conflict resolution plan built on future behaviors, this leader can improve her odds of success.
You can learn from this leader's challenge. Focus on behaviors. Focus on performance issues. Focus on business impact. Avoid getting drawn into a discussion focused on fixing feelings or debating intentions. Keep your focus on what you can see and monitor: behaviors and results. If you do this, your conflict conversations will have a better outcome.