Sunday, August 9, 2020
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Rules of Engagement: How to – and Not to – Facilitate Workplace Conflict Resolution

Managing conflict in any business is a difficult and delicate proposition. When it’s a family business, the complexities grow exponentially. That’s because the environment has changed from one that involves employees to one that involves employees, owners and family members – or all three in one.

The process of conflict resolution is an involved one that requires careful preparation and planning. Approaching it in a strategic, step-by-step manner will help you reach the best resolution for all parties involved.


The first step in conflict resolution is to assess your own biases and skills as a mediator in the particular situation. For example, are you too emotionally tied to one or more of the parties in conflict? Are you confident you can guide the process in an objective way? Do you need the assistance of a trusted colleague? Remember that you, too, have needs relating to this conflict, only one of which is to have it resolved for the sake of your family business.

Next, you need to assess what the conflict is really about – both at a surface level and the factors hiding below the surface. There may be hidden motives at play, and you need to be able to look at what kinds of emotions each person involved in the conflict might have and what each person might need in the resolution process. By completing a thorough assessment prior to attempting to resolve a significant conflict, you are more likely to help each person involved feel safe and understood. Also think about what might happen if the conflict is not resolved. What are the best and worst case scenarios, and then what is most likely to happen? Thinking about the conflict in this way can help shed light on what outcome is really needed.


Carefully choose a neutral place for your meeting with the parties involved in a conflict. Make sure the location is private and provides a comfortable environment that enables people to face each other, on a level playing field, in their discussions. Also choose an appropriate time for your meeting. Do not attempt to do it when employees are most likely to be tired, hungry or under other forms of pressure.Make sure that everyone is available to meet, and brief all parties involved in the meeting what their respective roles are. You should also outline ground rules for the mediation process to ensure that it is respectful at all times. Insist that people don’t interrupt each other, and that language is professional and free of personal attacks.

Listening and Communicating Effectively

As you begin your discussions with the parties in conflict, your first priority should be on listening and really trying to understand each person’s viewpoints, priorities and needs. Instead of sitting back and letting those in dispute hash it out, guide the conversation in a constructive way, encouraging everyone to be open and honest, and asking questions to help identify the real nature of the problem without making assumptions. Validate, don’t demean, each person’s concerns and their emotions. Through the process, take time to restate or summarize what you’ve discussed, what headway you’ve made and what concerns still remain.

Create a Solution Together

If you follow these steps, at a point in the conversation you will likely feel like you’ve learned enough about the nature of the parties’ concerns and priorities to begin guiding them toward a proposed solution. Using a set of criteria based on agreed-upon priorities (and after clarifying with the group what those criteria are), have your group begin brainstorming various resolutions to the problem and then compare those solutions to your agreed-upon criteria.

In this process, don’t let yourself become distracted by issues that are not germane to the real problem at hand. Keep on target, focusing on the priorities at the center of the conflict to come up with one or more resolution scenarios that are acceptable to all parties involved in the conflict. In this case, “acceptable” means that it is fair, balanced and realistic… and it can actually be carried out through specific steps. Putting the solution down in writing is essential so that those specific steps are understood, and include guidelines on what the parties should do if another conflict arises in the future. Once the meeting is over, don’t consider the conflict resolved. Meet with the involved parties to gauge their satisfaction with the resolution, as well as their progress – and keep encouraging them.

What to Do in Case of Stalemate

Not all conflict resolution meetings conclude with an actual resolution. You may find that the parties are locked in a stalemate. In this instance, keep clarifying what you have learned together and on what points you agree… and understand that stalemate itself is an additional frustration. Despite this frustration, which you also are likely feeling, remain as calm and respectful as possible. Review again the ground rules, what the real priorities and needs are for each person, and what the alternatives to reaching a resolution are. Discuss whether the way the meeting is being conducted is contributing to the impasse. Finally, you may find that taking a break, even if for a few days, may help everyone gain additional perspective and confidence needed to come back to the table ready to be more flexible or to consider alternatives that seemed undesirable in your first meeting.

What Not to Do

Conflict resolution isn’t a comfortable process. Even so, it’s a huge mistake to avoid it, hoping that it will just resolve itself on its own. Workplace conflict has a way of starting small and, when left unresolved, infecting more and more employees. Stress runs rampant and people start taking sides. Also, as you attempt to resolve conflict, don’t meet separately with those involved in the conflict. Doing so could create a greater rift, because the involved parties are likely to paint a dramatic picture of the problem for you in an attempt to win you over to their side and, in the process, dig their heels in even more.

In the end, remember that conflicts are a normal part of a business, whether a family business or otherwise. But you can help avoid conflicts by establishing policies and procedures that eliminate guesswork or room for inaccurate assumptions. For more on establishing rules in your family business, see our article, Creating Law and Order in Family Business, and for more on conflict management, see our article, Conflict in Family Businesses.


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