Sheila and Sam have never gotten along well, and when they are assigned to a key project together, neither person is pleased. Minor tensions slowly grow into full-scale battle, and the rest of the team is uncertain about what to do. They encourage Sheila and Sam to “stay focused” and “try to get along.” Meanwhile, the task they are assigned is floundering.

In the midst of a conflict situation, we sometimes address only the symptoms and surface issues. The elephants in the room – emotional flash points – are ignored out of fear that they will result in a heated exchange, or worse, permanently damage the already-tenuous relationship.

Some of these potential flash points are past history, power differences, hidden agendas and fear of being blamed or humiliated. It can be hard to raise these issues in the conversation; NOT addressing them, however, can guarantee that you’ll be in conflict again very soon.

If you observe this dynamic at work, here are some tips about navigating these sensitive issues:

Bring in a facilitator. Someone who is not involved in the conflict may be in a better position to ask the right questions, ensure open communication and enforce ground rules.

Use “I” statements. Encourage both parties to speak from their own perspective and experience. Avoid making assumptions or accusing others of feeling a certain way.

Ask questions. Statements can have the effect of hardening positions. Try asking open-ended questions instead, like, “How does the previous project’s failure affect our interactions today?” or “What issues of power play a role in this conflict?”

Use neutral language. This may take some pre-planning. Think of the words that might inflame tensions, and how you can restate the same idea in more neutral terms. Avoid sarcasm, exaggerations, name-calling and offensive language.

One of the most difficult aspects of conflict resolution is recognizing when we are stuck, or that we have emotional “elephants” that keep us from seeing the situation differently. Remember the words of George Bernard Shaw when you need to stay open to self-awareness: “The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.”

Need help identifying your elephants and managing conflict? Contact Humanergy.

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