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Conflict Resolution: When Three Meetings Are Better Than One

When two of your staff members are at war, you might be tempted to call them into your office and help them work it out, as I attempted to do recently. That tactic works sometimes, but if they are really at war and hurt feelings are involved, you might want to try the three-meeting approach. Here’s how it works:

You meet with each teammate individually and explain how you intend to resolve the problem: “Jake, I’m meeting with you one-on-one and will do the same with Elwood once you and I are done. I want you to understand how the three of us are going to resolve this issue. First, I’ll hear your side of the story, and then I’ll share that with Elwood. I’ll then want to hear Elwood’s side, and I’ll share his feedback with you. Then, the three of us will come together so everyone will arrive knowing everyone else’s perceptions and issues, and we can then focus on how to resolve it.”

Truly listen and let them vent their frustrations to you one-on-one. Then set ground rules and qualifiers to automatically de-escalate feelings of angst or anger in the participants in the group meeting and make it understood that after the group meeting you’ll be holding them accountable for reinventing their working relationship. Remember, you’re helping them fix their problem.

Encourage them to use phrases like ‘‘this is how I feel’’ and ‘‘can you understand why I would feel that way?’’ Remind them that feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Perception is reality until proven otherwise, so it’s everyone’s responsibility to sensitize the other to the perceptions that have developed and caused the issue. That’s what these kinds of management interventions are! There’s no fact-finding here. Instead, they’re more like sensitivity training sessions where goodwill and openness naturally heal the wounds, so you can get to the root of the problem.

Once you see a willingness to fix it, conclude the meeting this way:

“Jake and Elwood, you’ve both heard the other side of the story now. I’m not asking you to become best friends and start a band, but I’m insisting that you both demonstrate respect and open communication toward each other at work from this point forward. I’ll end this meeting with two questions. First, do I have your commitment that you’ll view the other with goodwill and assume good intentions from this point forward? Second, do you both understand that if the situation doesn’t improve and the workflow is negatively impacted in any way, my response next time could be in the form of progressive discipline rather than a goodwill sit-down like this?”

And congratulations! You’ve treated your warring parties as adults and held them accountable for fixing the perception problem themselves. Remember, no matter how much you may want to, you can’t manage your employees’ differences and issues for them. Only they can do that. But you can provide a forum and guidance for solving employee disputes that bring out the best in people and enhance your position as a leader.

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