6 Techniques To Constructively Navigate Team Conflict

6 Ways To Constructively Navigate Team Conflict
Summary: Conflict happens on every team. From watershed challenges to small daily frictions, how you handle conflict defines team culture. These 6 techniques can help you address conflict in inclusive, equitable, productive ways to help your team thrive.

Conflict, Performance, Equity, And Inclusion

It’s easier to treat everyone well when everyone's getting along. It’s a lot harder during conflict. Handling conflict poorly—through avoidance, reverting to old habits, steamrolling the opposition, insider favoritism—confirms employees' worst fears and can lead to withdrawal and lower productivity. In contrast, handling conflict well—through listening, flexibility, accountability, treating everyone with equity—builds credibility and trust. Handling conflict well can also align people, clarify team expectations, and increase team members’ sense of belonging and even pride.

If your team isn't experiencing big conflict right now, it’s a great time to build your team’s baseline psychological safety. If you are experiencing conflict, it's an even better time!

If you're trying to put equity and inclusion into action on a daily basis in your company, pay special attention to how you handle conflict. Training on these 6 simple techniques will go a long way. Practice these techniques yourself, and/or teach and model them as a facilitator.

Technique 1: Notice And Name Your Internal State

Take a breath. Take three. Take three more. While you’re breathing, check in with yourself and notice your internal state. What are your physical sensations? What emotions are you feeling? What’s your mental landscape? Are certain thoughts or stories circling in your mind?

Whatever is going on inside you, notice it, then try to name it. This is called “noting” or “labeling.” It gets you in touch with what’s going on inside you while simultaneously providing a bit of distance. With that distance, you might feel calmer. You might also find you can choose your words and actions, instead of being driven by adrenaline, emotions, assumptions, past trauma, or whatever was driving the bus before you paused.

Interrupting your autopilot makes space to choose your words and actions.

Technique 2: Ask Consent

It takes energy, attention, and time to deal with conflict well. When you bring up a conflict with a teammate, don’t just spring it on them and dive in. Instead you might ask, “I have a conflict I’d like to discuss with you. Are you open to doing that (now, at a set time, with support from a neutral third party…)?”

Asking consent demonstrates respect and gives them the opportunity to collaborate with you to choose the best time and approach to deal with the conflict constructively.

Technique 3: Practice Transparency

Transparency here means revealing your inner state to others. Conflict is difficult for most people. If you’re so nervous that your stomach is upset, you can say, “I’m so nervous, my stomach is upset.” If you’re afraid the conflict has already damaged a valued relationship, you could say, “I’m afraid this has already damaged our relationship, which I really value. I want to clear the air and get things right between us.” If you're afraid you might lose your job over this, even if you believe that's not a rational fear, you could say, "I'm feeling anxious that I might lose my job over this. I don't really believe that will happen, but I'm still afraid and my heart is racing."

Revealing your inner state can feel vulnerable. It reveals that the outcome matters, perhaps that the other person matters to you—which means they have the power to hurt you. Revealing this can make you more fully human to them—not just a co-worker, employee, or boss. It can also calm their fears that conflict will lead to you rejecting them or influencing others to reject them. Taken together, all this might soften them in their position and allow them to listen more fully to you.

Especially during conflict, honest vulnerability is powerful.

Technique 4: Reveal Impact

Use this transparency technique to let the other person know they made a difference to you, good or bad. It can be framed simply:

“When you [did or said this], I felt [this emotion or physical sensation].”

"When you..." is an objective statement of the other person’s words or actions—quoting their words, describing their action in words anyone present might use. A fully objective statement is not an attack or accusation, and it can’t be argued with or denied. Stating the other’s words and actions neutrally can help me see the situation more objectively and calmly, which is a big plus when I’m upset.

OBJECTIVE: “When you turned off your camera while I was speaking…”

NOT OBJECTIVE: “When you ignored me…” (Saying you ignored me is my assumption. After all, you could have been listening carefully while your camera was off.)

Tip: Be mindful of your intentions here. Do not share an impact in order to induce guilt or pity, or to manipulate others. If you're struggling with that, be extra careful to use neutral language in the When You part.

"I felt..." is the second part. It is completely subjective because it's about what happened inside you. It shows the relationship between the other person's words and actions and how you feel now without blaming or crediting them for your internal state. Examples:

  • “When you turned off your camera while I was speaking, I felt tightness in my chest, and I felt dismissed, angry, and helpless.”
  • “When you said you were angry about how Rodrigo left the company, I felt resonance and camaraderie.”
  • “When you talked about helping your neighbor rebuild after the flood, I felt respect and gratitude.”

Technique 5: Ask Curious Questions

Instead of assuming you know, ask questions to explore. What was behind the other person’s comment or action? What is the impact of this problem/conflict on them? What do they want most? What kind of support do they desire? Have they experienced something like this before? What do they fear? What do they hope?

Starting with questions opens the door to establish a common understanding of what’s going on, what’s desired, and what’s possible. Genuinely curious questions humanize all parties. They surface surprising and unexpected information about each other and past experiences.

Asking curious questions makes the conversation about people as well as about solving a problem.

Technique 6: Reflect Their Words

Reflecting means repeating back what the other person said, in their words, without judgment or interpretation. You can summarize, but don’t embellish or attribute intentions they didn’t state. A good sentence stem to frame this kind of reflection is: “What I think I heard you say is…."

Then invite them to confirm, correct, or build on what you said to add to your understanding. You might ask, “Does that land for you? Do you want to add anything?”

When you reflect this way, you get to find out if you really understood. And you demonstrate that you are listening well, that you heard what the other person said, and that you can hold their words without distortion.

Feeling heard is extremely powerful, especially if the other person has felt invisible or walled out of the conversation.

Building A Stronger Team

Conflicts come and go, but habits are…well, not forever, but at least persistent. If you build skills and habits that support healthy team dynamics, dealing with conflict will become less scary and more productive on your team. Here are some fundamentals you can work on anytime:

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