Managing Three Types of Conflict in Meetings

In meetings, sometimes it feels like conflict is always with us.  In particular, three types of conflict are common.  Here is how to recognize these and ideas on facilitator tactics to deal them. 

Task Conflict

Task conflict often involves concrete issues related to work assignments or promises about who will do what.

They can include disputes about how to divide up resources, differences of opinion on procedures and policies, differing expectations about work, judgments and interpretation of facts, and different opinions about the quality standards.

Task conflict is usually the simplest to resolve. Two interventions are worth trying. 

First is to facilitate a negotiation between the parties to ‘write’ a new, unambiguous list of agreements about the points in conflict.  This can be done through active listening, which involves asking questions, repeating back what you hear to confirm your understanding, and asking even deeper questions aimed at probing for deeper concerns.  Try to engage the parties in a collaborative problem-solving process in which they brainstorm workable solutions.  When parties develop solutions together, rather than having an outcome imposed on them, they are more likely to abide by the agreement and get along better in the future.

Second, if it is not possible to resolve all points of disagreement, create a separate list of these for either future work or to hand off to someone else to decide.  It can help to host a future negotiation after the heat of the moment has passed or have the organization’s leaders serve as de facto mediators or decision makers on the unresolved issues. 

But task conflict often turns out to have deeper roots and more complexity than it appears at first glance.  For example, coworkers who are arguing about which one of them should go to an out-of-town conference may have a deeper conflict based on a sense of rivalry—bringing us to…

Relationship Conflict

Relationship conflict arises from differences in ambition, personality, style, matters of taste, and even conflict styles.  While it can be difficult and uncomfortable, conflict in a relationship is not always a bad thing.  When it is healthy and productive, relationship conflict presents an opportunity for people to learn about how others see and experience the world.

Before a relationship conflict kills your facilitation, you might invite the participants out to a private conversation and try to get to know them and their dispute better.  Discovering things that they have in common—whether a tie to the same city, social issue, work objective, or shared concerns about problems in your organization—may give you common ground you can use to bring the people together.

In this conversation resist urges the parties may have to argue or defend their position.  This conversation is a search for common ground.  With common ground identified there is a chance the parties can co-create a future where they can work together to create that benefit.  Along the way in this conversation demonstrate empathy and interest, and the parties are more likely to reciprocate.  If the conflict persists or worsens, another option is to enlist the help of a manager in resolving your differences.

But relationship conflict often turns out to have deeper roots as well, bringing us to…

Value Conflict

Value conflict can arise from fundamental differences in identities, which can include differences in worldview, politics, religion, ethics, norms, and other deeply held beliefs.  Although discussion of politics and religion is often taboo in facilitated meetings, disputes about values can arise in other contexts such as whether to implement an affirmative action program or whether to work with a client with a bad reputation.

Disputes involving values tend to heighten defensiveness, distrust, and alienation.  Parties can feel so strongly about standing by their values that they reject compromises that would satisfy other interests they might have.

For a solution facilitate a process of reframing a values-based dispute by appealing to other values that the parties share.  Let me explain.

A critical first step in seeking to resolve a values-based dispute is to guide the conversation away from demonization and toward mutual understanding and respect through dialogue.  Aim for the parties accurately understanding one another’s point of view.  This does not mean coming to an agreement about anything—this step is about creating understanding.  This type of understanding doesn’t require ‘touchy-feely’ emotional sharing, though it will sometimes occur.  It is only a ‘values-neutral’ ability to describe accurately what someone else believes about the situation.

A next step is to dig deeper with each party to understand a wider range of values they hold.  For example, in a pattern I frequently see, the parties may complain that their value around the idea of fairness is violated.  With more facilitator questions, they might also disclose values they hold about self-determination and freedom of choice.  I might not succeed asking the parties to compromise on fairness.  But with that additional information I can ask them to proposal solutions they can both live with to meet their needs for self-determination and freedom of choice.  Often that is enough to resolve the fairness issue.

Great facilitators learn to recognize task, relationship, and values as distinct types of conflict that require distinct types of interventions. 

A conflict in a meeting may be uncomfortable but it provides valuable information for the facilitator that the status quo is not working.  While conflict can be stressful, it can also act to ‘clear the air,’ surfacing issues that need discussion through your expert facilitation.


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