How to manage conflict: steering the meeting

A professional couple having a discussion over coffee in a cafe

In the second part of our practical tips on conflict management, the Leading Roles team offer insight into how to handle difficult conversations in a meeting. 

After you have prepared for your meeting, the time has come to you to face your colleague.

A warm welcome
Offer warm greetings with a genuine smile and thank them for sparing the time to see you. Check this is the right time for them and be mindful of potential interruptions and distractions. Be considerate of their comfort and the environment / surroundings.

Offer a structure for the meeting
We like the 3Ps framework: “Purpose, Process, Payoff”, which might sound something like this: “We need to talk about what happened on Monday (purpose).  I really want to hear your opinion as to what happened, and I would like to share mine (process). Hopefully by the end of the conversation, we will have agreed what we can do to resolve the situation to both our satisfaction (payoff).”

Seek first to understand and then be understood
Gather as many facts as you can before sharing your opinions. The other party will probably be grateful for the chance to speak first and at length if it’s an issue they have been troubled by. You could prepare some short focused questions to help the other person give you the full picture from their point of view. Start with open questions and make brief notes (if they don’t mind) of aspects you wish to explore further. Use ‘funnelling’ to explore these topics. Probe gently to make sure you have the pertinent facts.

Remember TED as a tool for clarifying and seeking further information (Tell me…, Explain…, Describe…).

Fair air-time?
Are you doing too much talking? Check in and ask an open question and really listen to what they’re saying.  Be ready to summarise and ‘playback’ what you have heard to demonstrate your understanding.

Respect silence
It can often be very powerful to leave a long pause for thought, and it can be damaging to interrupt someone’s train of thought if the matter is of consequence to them.

Show what cards you can
Promote trust through your body language, for example by keeping your hands visible, relaxed and open. Clenched or hidden hands can send the wrong message and subconsciously provoke adverse reactions.

Listen to the other view
Ask for the other party’s proposed solutions to the situation before stating your own. Having considered both the benefits and consequences of your proposed solutions from both your points of view before the conversation, seek a chance to cover these off during the conversation, and check for consensus on this. If you need to offer feedback, the AID model (and its implied principle of being helpful to the other party) is a useful one: What Action have you seen or heard? What Impact did / will it have? What would you therefore like the other person to do in consequence (Desired behaviour)?

Finally, if you need to offer explanations of your rationale, structure the explanation around three points. Any more and they are more likely to be misremembered.

Be ‘future-focused’
Talk about events of the past, the present business of rectification, and a more positive future.

Thank them for their time
Acknowledge any effort you have seen them make towards a positive outcome, and for any honesty and candour you recognised.

Buy yourself time
If you need to reflect on an outcome, meet again to discuss it. Agree the next steps clearly and repeat or summarise any agreed actions before you part.

If you would like to know more about handling difficult conversations, join us on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

We have further resources on having difficult conversations on our Knowledge Bank. Take a look here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/knowledgebank

Leading Roles comprises of Sharon Paterson, Mike Rogers and Paul Hessey. Sharon is an associate director culture and engagement at MIMA and Teesside University. Mike is a coach, roleplayer and facilitator for several consultancies in the arena of effective communications and leadership development. Paul Hessey is a leadership, management and communication skills expert who has worked across a wide range of sectors including financial services, manufacturing and the NHS.