Conflict to Collaboration: How to Pause and Reset
Have you ever reached a point in communication where things are just bad, to put it mildly? Despite our best intentions, communication can break down. If issues are not rectified, trust and relationships deteriorate to the point where people—good people—become antagonistic and aggressive in their communication. This happens in personal lives, and it happens at work.
A number of years ago, I was called in to help a client. The client was a large resources company here in Perth that worked closely with external service providers. At that time, a lot of work in the industry was being completed by external service providers, so the operating company needed to work extremely closely with external organisations on a daily basis. And, they needed efficient, effective, deep, and healthy communication for this to be a success. In this instance, the communication was failing in all areas and project disaster was a very real and rapidly approaching possibility. Read on to discover how we worked through the conflict and got the team on track to success.
In instances like this, a reset is needed. For conflict prone situations, engaging an external facilitator is a wise move as they are able to take a neutral and non-emotive stance and remain focused on the end-goal.
To help my client solve this very real issue, I facilitated a day-long workshop with the whole team—the internal and external team. The stakes were very high and failure was a very real possibility. Generally when people talk of creating a unified vision, they focus on the positive: it is in this shared goal and vision that people find motivation to collaborate. On this occasion, there was already so much negativity and cynicism that going straight to the positive may have been futile; instead, I first asked the combined team how they thought the status quo would play out, and if things did not work out, where they would end up.
Humans generally want to improve their position in life. It’s a desire that has got our species to where we are today, and explains why things like mobile phones and the internet—once luxuries—are now considered normal and almost fundamental to our existence. We are not solely motivated by the positive though; indeed, we have an even stronger aversion to fear and pain than we do an attraction to reward. When I asked the team to consider their future in this negative sense, this is what I was relying on. Only by exploring the negative, were we able to unite everyone, not with a shared goal, but with a shared fear first. With that unifying negative, we were then able to progress towards the positive.
Shifting gear into the positive, the team created a preferred vision—what would things be like if they were able to change and achieve success. I’m sure you will have done this as part of the many teams you have been part of throughout your life. With the positive vision explored and described, I then led the team through a brain-writing and brainstorming process to generate a range of options and possibilities for achieving the ideal scenario.
As with any workshop of this style, a critical element is developing the action plan, and this was the final task-oriented step. To ensure future progress, the combined team had to commit to a series of actions to repair relationships and improve work efficiencies—all of which related to relationships and relationship building. One action included prioritising phone and face-to-face communication rather than the default email. Emails between team members had led to frequent miscommunication and conflict and so they agreed to use email only to back-up and support oral communication. This simple change in behaviour had a dramatic effect on cross-organisational relationships and productivity, from the very next day! It was a shift that along with other changes in behaviours and attitudes facilitated the successful completion of the project.
So what was key to their success? I would put it down to the following six key points
- They engaged an external facilitator: this is often overlooked, but essential in high-conflict scenarios (and still highly beneficial even when there isn’t conflict)The process of running a workshop acted as a circuit breaker. It was the time out from their daily work that they needed to pause and reflect. Pause and Reflect. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important this is.Exploring the status quo and negative vision provided the needed wake-up callDiscussing the team’s ideal situation brought the realisation that both organisations wanted the same thing. The unified goal was the basis for then moving forward.After exploring different options, they committed and held each other accountable to specific actions to be continued after the initial workshop.They continued to have short sessions each month where they explored how they were going and what need to be maintained or changed. This continued to strengthen their communication and hence their relationship.
Where are you currently experiencing sub-standard communication? How can you take time out to pause and reflect on the way and what you are communicating and press the re-set button? In some instances, in may be just a few quiet minutes alone and a commitment to change tack, or it could be time to bring in a third party to help as in the example above.