By Carolyn Landesman
Ever been to a meeting full of conflict that lead to bruised egos and a breakdown in working relationships. What about the meeting that was hijacked and went off track by someone who wouldn’t shut up. There is nothing worse than being in a meeting where it totally turns to custard and all hell breaks loose.
Conflict in meetings is not always a bad thing. It can be exciting and energizing especially when it comes to new and innovative discussions. However, when not controlled, conflict can disrupt important initiatives and cause a major breakdown in teamwork. The important thing is to ensure a meeting conflict doesn’t hurt a team’s progress and affect the overall morale of an organization.
Why meetings turn to conflict
When you bring a group of people together in a meeting, they tend to adopt roles. These roles can either be constructive or destructive. Constructive roles contribute to positive meeting outcomes.
Destructive roles don’t contribute to positive meeting outcomes, as they inhibit or interrupt positive efforts by the group. If group members cannot satisfy their needs, a meeting can turn into a conflict.
The chair or leader’s job is to control the meeting, and one way to do this is to recognize people’s behaviors in meetings and identify which ones might be destructive.
Contributors actively contribute to the discussions by suggesting new ideas that are relevant to the meeting topic. They offer facts and generalizations and initiate information aimed at dealing with a particular issue.
Some contribute in a way that seeks new ideas and different perspectives. They look to relate one contribution of ideas to another. They are good at making ideas and information clear to all in the room and look to clarify different points of view. They keep a meeting on track with their positive and constructive ideas.
Often you will find a person who attempts to control the group by talking loudly and asserting their authority. These people seek attention and recognition and are often argumentative causing a meeting agenda to go off track.
Then you have the joker who also causes a meeting to go off track. Uncomfortable and lacking confidence, they use humor to deflect the real issues. They fail to take real concerns seriously and typically mock other people’s contributions.
The blocker deliberately opposes new ideas or attempts to introduce ideas that have already been rejected. They are typically stubborn and will not budge from their point of view. Often, they block an idea based on a personality conflict as opposed to seeing merit in an idea.
The nit-picker is everyone’s favorite meeting saboteur. They hold up discussions with unnecessary definitions or explanations and magnify and over-emphasize insignificant details. They block progress with too many questions – it’s their way of maintaining control.
A retreater is a person who withdraws into themselves and refuses to participate in a meeting. They won’t contribute to group discussions. They’re quiet and sometimes passive aggressive. They sit on the fence or daydream oblivious to what is going on around them.
As a leader, recognize that a single person can play a multitude of these roles in one meeting. If a contributor is normally positive and takes on a destructive role in a meeting, it’s time to step in take control. Conversely, if a person rarely contributes and seems withdrawn, you may have to inspire them to participate.
Types of conflict in meetings
Typically conflict in meetings will fall into two categories:
- Professional differences
- Power struggles
Professional differences are not always a bad thing and, in many cases, doesn’t develop into open conflict that derails a meeting. The more important the outcome, the more likely the scale of professional differences could lead to open conflict. This is because if a wrong decision is made, this can affect those involved negatively. If this type of conflict is left unresolved, it can rapidly undermine meeting objectives and destroy what might have previously been a good working relationship.
On the other hand, conflict in meetings can arise when an individual or groups dislike each other resulting in personality conflicts and power struggles. This type of conflict has more to do with personalities than it does with the issues being tabled or facts arising from a meeting.
Managing conflict in meetings
When conflict arises, or continues to occur in a meeting, it is best to focus on the issue as opposed to the person and their emotions. The key is to spot the conflict before it gets out of hand. You can do this through the observation of body language. Things to look for are:
- Rolling of the eyes
- Shaking of the head
- Fidgeting or moving around in a restless manner
- Whispering or writing notes to others
- Staring intently at another person
- Looking around to see if others are in agreement
Nipping potential conflict in the bud before it happens by diverting attention is far better than allowing it to brew. Here are a few tips to help you manage people in meetings.
One approach to managing conflict in a meeting is to switch the focus from conflict to research. By using open questions or probing questions, you are looking for the participants to provide evidence, rather than simply stating they disagree. They need to provide a reason for that disagreement. Evidence defeats doubt.
A collaborative approach to conflict is when you look to accommodate everyone’s point of view because you believe it’s important. When conflict arises, and you need a decision, you may have to be assertive to gain a consensus to end the conflict.
It is not always possible to get 100% agreement on everything. You may need to compromise occasionally. When you need agreement or consensus on a decision, compromise your point of view to keep things moving forward.
Competitive people like to win and will sometimes dig their toes in, even if they don’t have all the facts. You may need to make a decision, even if its unpopular, to ensure the conflict doesn’t get out of control. Remember, this can be a win-lose or lose-win decision that could cause resentment, so use this strategy carefully.
Sometimes, a relationship with others is more important than winning a point of view. You might use this style to resolve a conflict by being accommodating. It means you are being cooperative, rather than being assertive, especially if you don’t have a great deal of stake in the outcome.
To take the heat off a conflict, sometimes an effective strategy is to defer the discussion to another time outside of the meeting. This allows people to calm down and take stock of their position. If you decide to defer, ensure you allocate a time, day, and place to continue the discussion, so all involved know the conflict will be resolved.
Take things off line
Sometimes, you can’t resolve issues in a meeting, particularly if they become more personal or things that shouldn’t be discussed in public. If this happens, acknowledge the issue and take it off-line by continuing the discussion outside the meeting, with only the people involved in the conflict.
Reduce or remove the threat
A major reason conflicts occurs in a meeting is that some people feel threatened. Perception is reality and if a person feels their position, ideas, reputation or judgement are threatened, they will move into fight or flight mode.
It’s important in this case to deal with the perceived threat by either removing it or reducing it.
To resolve a conflict and bring out the best in a person, begin by asking open-ended questions to assess whether their perception of the threat is right or wrong. It may be their position is based on incomplete or inaccurate information. If based on incomplete or inaccurate information you can clear this up by providing the correct information.
If the threat is real, then that person has the right to feel threatened. Again, ask open-ended questions to find out what is causing the threat and how you might best address the problem. One way to accomplish this is through the eight step problem solving formula.
On a final note
Look to resolve conflict in a meeting before it damages relationships and teamwork
In a Nutshell
People in meetings adopt roles. They can either be destructive or constructive.
- Contributors actively contribute to positive meeting outcomes.
- Clarifiers suggest new ideas and clarify differing points of view.
- Dominators attempt to control discussions and assert authority.
- Jokers use humor to derail a meeting and don’t take things seriously.
- Blockers deliberately oppose new ideas or reintroduce ideas that have previously been rejected.
- The nit-picker sabotages meetings by holding up discussion and over-emphasis insignificant details.
- The retreater withdraws altogether and refuses to participate.
Typically conflict in meeting fall into two categories.
- Professional differences which can be a good thing.
- Power struggles and personality conflicts.
To control conflict in a meeting:
- Switch focus from conflict to research by asking open-ended questions
- Be assertive and gain consensus to end the conflict.
- You can’t always get 100% agreement therefore you may need to compromise.
- Sometimes relationships are more important than winning a point of view.
- Defer the discussion to another time once participants have had time to cool off.
- Take things off-line and deal with the conflict outside the meeting structure.
- Reduce or remove the threat.
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