Handling Resistance When Working through Employee Conflicts
When resolving employee conflict, you might encounter resistance to your mediation skills and strategies, regardless of how hard you work to keep an open, safe, and respectful environment. No magic formula exists for moving through resistance to conflict resolution. Every one of your employees is unique and carries his own experiences, personalities, and core values. And because each person comes to this conversation with different needs, each one will likely respond differently to different techniques.
Your goal is not to bully your employees into working through resistance. As satisfying as it may initially be to headbutt your way through an impasse, that approach rarely gives you anything but a migraine. You have a lot of power in your role, and if you use it to force your employees to find a solution, they may not arrive at an appropriate or sustainable answer.
Before you address how (or even if) you want to work through resistance, have a sense of where it’s coming from. Take a look at some of the common causes of resistance to discussions:
Strong emotion: Strong emotions tend to limit people’s ability to think critically and can hamper progress.
Distrust: This can be because of their work history, their relationship, bad experiences, or even threats, both real and perceived. They may not trust you, either, as a neutral facilitator. Don’t take it personally — do your best to prove them wrong.
Failure to communicate/listen: Lack of communication may happen because employees simply have different communication styles, or it may happen because they choose hostile or unproductive language.
Failure to see options: Mediation meetings work best when a plethora of ideas are on the table; a narrow view of solutions certainly slows down the progress.
Overconfidence/moral high ground: If an employee believes, justly or not, that he’s in the right and that he has been wronged, he may be overconfident in his position.
Negative association: Essentially, an employee may choose not to negotiate or accept offers simply because it’s the other person who proposed the solution.
It takes some work and some attention, but you can do a number of things when you reach an impasse:
Exploring the impasse: To help your employees see the conflict that brought them to the table with a new set of eyes, start by asking each of them to describe the stalemate. They may find that they’re stuck for very different reasons, and they may discover some workarounds for the areas where they can find commonality.
Creating options: Help them brainstorm answers rather than dwell on problems. You can accomplish this by turning their attention away from the past and focusing instead on the future.
Testing the margins: Create clarity around the boundaries of the situation by asking the parties to give some thought to their other options. Encourage both to describe the best and worst solutions that could come out of their meeting.
Refocusing on values: Your employees have likely gotten off track, or maybe they’re having a difficult time articulating the points that are so important to them. Help by really focusing the conversation on the critical elements. Ask them to describe what values their proposals address.
If you’ve gone through this exercise and still find that they’re struggling, ask them to mentally step away from the negotiation and to describe the qualities of a good agreement instead. Whatever their answers, ask if any of the ideas they’ve thrown out so far match the good agreement criteria. If the answer is no, encourage them to create new proposals that include the qualities that each of them just described.
Interrupting negative behaviors: Don’t be surprised if the parties have difficulty working within the boundaries of behavior you’ve set out for them.
If someone is continually using language that isn’t helpful, you can ask him to
Use different words
Reframe his statements in more neutral terms
Speak in I-statements
Summarize in terms that the other person can more easily understand
Don’t be afraid to address negative behavior. If it’s affecting your conversation, it won’t likely go away without assistance. And if you’ve noticed it, you can bet big money that the other party has noticed it as well.
Trying one last time to overcome resistance: A time may come when you realize that, no matter how hard you’ve tried, your employees are unable to resolve their problems with you as the facilitator. Your employees may attempt to make a last-ditch effort to solve the problem if they know you’ve reached the end of your line. So as you’re wrapping up, ask whether they have any last (or even best) offers before you end the discussion.