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In the previous guide on moderating meeting discussions, one very important topic emerged: during a discussion, conflicts can emerge. It's important to be able to spot them fast and resolve immediately.
So, what is a conflict? We often imagine conflict as a something explosive: a fight or at least a very agitated, emotional exchange of thoughts. Unless something disastrous happens in a meeting, you won't encounter conflict in that form in day-to-day circumstances. It will be more subtle and less in-your-face, because the working environment won't allow dramatic actions like shouting or physical contact. Meeting conflict will be subtle and can be hard to spot at first.
Can conflict be prevented? Smart meeting discussion moderation can prevent most common sources of conflicts. It's not a catch-all solutions though, so being able to spot and resolve conflicts is a very useful skill, too.
How to spot a conflict? Expect disagreeability, fussiness, or lack of engagement to be the early warning signs of conflict — things that negatively affect productivity and harmony between participants. When one side of the discussion seems to dominate, and the other is retreating, it's a clear sign that there's conflict and the discussion started to be unhealthy. When participant's ego is bruised, they may become defensive and focus more on keeping their face intact. Another form of conflict is one or more participants hogging the discussion time, not allowing alternative opinions to be properly voiced and explained. Cutting in or loudly commenting from the background. These behaviors case bring conflict into any discussion and make it in the long run unhealthy.
How to address conflict? When you facilitate a meeting, you should react to the early signs of conflict as soon as possible. Step in, address the situation openly and honestly, e.g. "I know that this topic is very polarizing to everybody, but please refrain from cutting in or commenting before all points are made". Very often, a very emotional moment causes participants to loose their guard a little — it's fine and as long as they can regain control of themselves you should give them such opportunity.
When situation is harder to control because of agitation or excessive emotions, facilitator may consider making a short pause or even organize a short 5-10 minute break. This way participants can take a breath, freshen up, and recollect. Should a participant cause such intervention regularly, a discreet and private conversation might be required to figure out what is the problem and cause of their outbursts. There might be another underlying reason for their behavior and a little bit of curiosity, care, and kindness can help resolve that.
How to resolve disagreeability and fussiness? To resolve this type of conflict, stick to the facts and look for the reason of the conflict. Is it caused by bruised ego? Is it indecision? Choice fatigue (too many possibilities)? Lack of trust or personal issues? Fear caused by lack of knowledge or experience? Any or all of these reasons can cause disagreeability. By keeping close to the facts and limiting the influence of emotions, a compromise should become reachable.
How to resolve lack of engagement? This type of conflict is a defensive mechanism: participant is retreating and stops engaging, because they feel rejected, ashamed, insulted, or ignored. Depending on the general emotional state of the discussion, facilitator's role should be engaging them and pull them back into the discussion. By genuinely caring about them and showing a curious and friendly attitude, their negative mental attitude can be improved.
How to resolve pointing out and blaming? When participants blame each other or point each other out, that communication process must be stopped. "Let's not look at each other, but collect all arguments and facts" is a perfect way to resolve that type of conflict. Sticking to the truth is repeating across most of the resolution strategies, because it's a constructive way to address uncertainty and chaos caused by a conflict. Emotions can lead to exaggeration and pessimism, so limiting their impact can have positive effects on the discussion.
How to resolve hogging time? As already mentioned in the moderation strategies, a feedback loop created with a clearly visible timer is the easiest and most effective way to prevent this type of conflict. Each participant should respect the rules.
How to resolve discussion cycle? When the discussion seems to go round (in a cycle) between arguments, the best way to resolve this type of conflict is to simply collect all of them and address each one by one. This way it will be possible to see, that these problems while connected, can be solved on their own. And a new solution can be found!
How to resolve lack of consensus, solution, or a compromise? When participants cannot agree on one solution, there are two ways to address that conflict. If the inability to decide is the effect of a long and exhausting meeting, decision should be postponed to another meeting. Otherwise there are strategies to narrow the scope and rank the solutions to quickly choose the best solution based on the facts. You will have to read more about these strategies another time!
Spotting and resolving conflicts is a very delicate art and requires a lot of sensitivity and wisdom: resolving a conflict should not create another one! We believe that people are good by nature and even when conflicts and tensions rise, being kind and honest to each other is the best way to address adversity and use the conflict in a constructive way. We hope this guide will help you work out your own strategies of coping with conflict and make your meetings more happy and productive for everyone!
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