Dealing with conflict on your team is a critical team development skill.

Having conflict in a team is not a bad thing. In fact, healthy conflict around ideas can build team dynamics and galvanize productivity. This conflict can occur when team members believe deeply in what they’re doing and feel confident in expressing to the team their ideas about how best to accomplish a task or goal.

team development - working through conflictHowever, negative conflict can and does occur, even in the best teams. Sometimes the symptoms of negative conflict aren’t clear –suddenly, it seems, a team member is engaged in a personal, verbal attack on another member, or team members are responding in negative ways to ideas posed during meetings.

Conflict actually builds in stages, and if you’re observant you can recognize what level the conflict over a specific topic, idea or team goal has reached.

There are three main stages of team conflict:

Stage 1 – At this level, most team members roll with the punches and don’t signal that they’re uncomfortable or in disagreement with what’s going on. If a team member is uncomfortable, their signals may be muted – you might notice a slight increase in their breathing, or a barely audible sigh when information they disagree with is given.

Stage 2 – You’ll notice a team member who’s in conflict at this stage: they’ll exhibit mild annoyance, rolling their eyes and emitting frustrated sighs. You may hear frustrated muttering, or the person may declare, “Whatever!” during a conversation.

Stage 3 – At this point, major feelings and frustrations are on full display. The team member will likely speak loudly and use profanity. Those who have reached Stage 3 are usually feeling aggrieved. In their mind, they’re the victim.

You or the team leader may not notice a Stage 1 conflict. A Stage 2 conflict is noticeable, and that’s where action must be taken to prevent things from escalating to Stage 3.

Here are some strategies for preventing this escalation:

Stage 1: Be empathetic to the situation. Let the person(s) know you take their concerns seriously. Thank them for being understanding about unplanned changes, and let them know you’re available to talk anytime.

Stage 2: Remain calm, and let the person express their annoyance. Again, thank the team member for being patient, and be empathetic to their concerns. Involve the team member in the process of searching for a solution – ask them what they might do to resolve a situation or improve a process.

Stage 3: If the conflict gets this far, talk to the team member one-on-one. Allow them to vent. Don’t tell them to calm down; they feel aggrieved at this point, and that their concerns haven’t been listened to. Now is the time to listen. Use reflective listening skills to clarify what they’re saying about an issue. When they’ve vented and are speaking productively again, work with them to find a solution.

Of course, there is often someone on the team (or a customer, perhaps) who goes from Stage 0 to Stage 3 immediately with no progression in between. Rather than try to figure out why this person jumps to the highest stage so quickly, just follow the steps to de-escalate; let them vent and then listen to their concerns.

A key strategy throughout these stages is finding a way to involve the other person in the solution. It’s not easy; still, finding a way to approach conflict that will work toward a positive end and a mending of feelings is well worth the effort.

One Team, One DreamExcerpted from One Team, One Dream by Gregg Gregory

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