Approaching Conflict: Be Honest Then Ask for Help

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I talk to people in training classes, in consulting engagements, and when out with colleagues about situations of conflict. There is quite a bit of literature out there about how to manage and resolve conflict. There is one single phrase that I use to provide others guidance on how they can work with others to resolve conflicts:

Be Honest Then Ask for Help

I will give an instance of this from my real world. We were working on a team that I was ScrumMaster on. One of the best developers I know seemed to be having difficulty making it to important meetings and also in meeting commitments with the team. The rest of the team was even starting to notice and voice concern about this person’s contributions. In a one-on-one discussion I first described the situation in an honest way:

“I noticed lately that you are not getting to some of our important meetings and seem to be having troubles keeping up with the work we are working on. In fact, other team members made some comments to me about their own concerns.”

Then I followed this up by asking them what is going on and what we should do about it:

“You have been an excellent team member and this recent behavior concerns me in terms of the team and for you. Do you have any ideas about what is going on and how we should address it?”

Come to find out this person was having heavy family issues over the past 2 months. They were so consumed with these family issues that they were not really aware of how much their behavior was impacting the team. They told me that they would like to talk with the team about their situation before the next day’s Daily Scrum meeting. When they told the team about their situation the entire team was very supportive and said they would help and make up for any impact to planned deliveries if they would just keep the team informed about any adjustments that need to be made to handle important family issues.

Conflict Types

In our Certified ScrumMaster course we provide a list of conflict types:

  • Lack of clarity – we just don’t have detailed enough information to create a common view

  • Position focus – we are discussing a topic from at least two different perspectives

  • Different values – our philosophies or principles are not aligned

  • Past history or personality – our previous experiences or personality trait we are familiar with distracts us from healthy resolution

The first two, “lack of clarity” and “position focus”, make up a significant amount of the conflict that we come in contact with. Fortunately, these are also the easiest to resolve in my experience. When there is a lack of clarity we can analyze more to make visible data that could help us clarify the situation. For a position focus conflict, we can usually find something that all parties can agree on within the larger situation or topic. From this point of agreement we can work through it until we have a sufficient resolution to move forward with.

Now, the last two, “different values” and “past history or personality”, are a bit more difficult. I have been known to be principled in the past and take a stand when I thought that I could be put into a position of being part of something I didn’t believe was good or valuable. The stance I was taking from a value-based position caused the other people involved to get frustrated with me. In these cases, I have found that we can isolate the pieces of the overall situation or topic that make either party take such a strong position and then work on them through negotiation. It can take some time to work through conflicts involving different values. For past history or personality, sometimes we can just try to start anew and take some advice from one our former U.S. presidents:
“Trust, but verify” – Ronald Reagan

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