To manage conflict effectively you must be a skilled communicator. That includes creating an open communication environment in your unit by encouraging employees to talk about work issues. Listening to employee concerns will foster an open environment. Make sure you really understand what employees are saying by asking questions and focusing on their perception of the problem. To learn more about communication skills, see Chapter 13: Communication.

Whether you have two employees who are fighting for the desk next to the window or one employee who wants the heat on and another who doesn't, your immediate response to conflict situations is essential. Here are some tips you can use when faced with employees who can't resolve their own conflicts.

  • Acknowledge that a difficult situation exists. Honesty and clear communication play an important role in the resolution process. Acquaint yourself with what's happening and be open about the problem.
  • Let individuals express their feelings. Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged.
  • Define the problem. What is the stated problem? What is the negative impact on the work or relationships? Are differing personality styles part of the problem? Meet with employees separately at first and question them about the situation.
  • Determine underlying need. The goal of conflict resolution is not to decide which person is right or wrong; the goal is to reach a solution that everyone can live with. Looking first for needs, rather than solutions, is a powerful tool for generating win/win options. To discover needs, you must try to find out why people want the solutions they initially proposed. Once you understand the advantages their solutions have for them, you have discovered their needs.
  • Find common areas of agreement, no matter how small:
    • Agree on the problem
    • Agree on the procedure to follow
    • Agree on worst fears
    • Agree on some small change to give an experience of success
  • Find solutions to satisfy needs:
    • Problem-solve by generating multiple alternatives
    • Determine which actions will be taken
    • Make sure involved parties buy into actions. (Total silence may be a sign of passive resistance.) Be sure you get real agreement from everyone.
  • Determine follow-up you will take to monitor actions. You may want to schedule a follow-up meeting in about two weeks to determine how the parties are doing.
  • Determine what you'll do if the conflict goes unresolved. If the conflict is causing a disruption in the department and it remains unresolved, you may need to explore other avenues. An outside facilitator (such as the Staff Ombuds Office) may be able to offer other insights on solving the problem. In some cases the conflict becomes a performance issue, and may become a topic for coaching sessions, performance appraisals, or disciplinary action (see Chapter 22: Taking Disciplinary Action).