A difficult client is repeatedly asking for wildly out of scope requests. Your designer completely disagrees with the way the client's feedback on their wireframes. A team member isn't listening to directives from clients.
Feeling some tension? You're not the only one.
It can be par for the course to run into issues on projects, but every so often there’s a conflict big enough to throw me for a loop. But even as the conflict is unfolding there is a lot that we as project managers can do to lead our team well. Developing proper conflict resolution skills and communication skills adds to the value that you bring to the team and the project.
I'll cover the ten most effective conflict management and conflict resolution strategies that I've employed when I've run into issues on my projects.
10 Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies
Here's another scenario. Once, a former manager of mine hung up the phone on the project team in a middle of a conference call, essentially storming out in the middle of a heated discussion. I remember the feeling: my stomach dropped, my palms were sweating, and I was making the grimace emoji face in real life.
We all sat in stunned silence, wondering how we had gotten to that exact moment and what to do next. Being a part of that interaction made me realize there were steps I could have taken to help the team avoid getting to the point where someone was angrily hanging up on us.
As project managers, we might run into conflict in our project meetings, within project teams, between ourselves and our clients, or in another setting altogether.
While we aren’t the cure-all for conflict, we often have the benefit of a multi-faceted perspective on the conflict situation which can put us in a solid position to help, if we’re equipped with the right conflict resolution techniques.
Here are a few conflict resolution strategies that’ll keep you from stressing out and reacting instinctively.
1. Pause, breathe, & decide next steps
A conflict-driven discussion just took place in a meeting, over email, or between you and a client: your first step should be to take a deep breath and think about your reaction to the situation.
- Is it purely reactive?
- Are you taking things personally?
- Is anyone else involved, and what might their outlooks be?
Deep breathing is a proven way to calm stress and provide a more focused outlook on the matter at hand, so take at least one deep breath if you’re in the middle of a heated or stressful conflict.
When we force ourselves to pause and breathe, rather than react, we can save ourselves from reacting emotionally and striking out in a way that might make things worse.
The next step in the conflict resolution process is to decide how to proceed. If the conflict was part of a larger dynamic (a meeting involving several people, a flurry of emails, or a small conflict within a bigger discussion), it might be best to wait to address this until later, especially if you weren’t directly involved but it involves your team or projects.
If the conflict on hand brings things to a screeching halt but the team or communication must continue on, acknowledge that something occurred but that it will need to be addressed later, and guide in the next subject.
In this case, it’s important to firmly but unemotionally continue things on—it’s likely that whoever was involved is still processing many reactions, but continuing to press these conflicting issues in a group setting will only result in more conflict and put people at odds. In one-on-one situations, this same tactic will work.
Acknowledge that there is conflict on the table, that it should be returned to after a period of time, and move on.
2. Address conflict privately
Whether the conflict is took place over email, in a meeting, on a call, or in person, make sure that the act of managing the conflict moves into a private arena. If the conflict takes place publicly, it can help to simply state that it will be addressed offline or privately and encourage everyone to move on.
Addressing the actual issue privately allows any/all involved parties the chance to express their feelings and intentions in a safer work environment, and prevents bystanders from getting needlessly involved.
3. Determine the appropriate medium
Similarly to addressing the issue in private, it’s also important to determine what medium is best to deal with any conflict at hand. Perhaps an in-person chat or video call is easiest so that body language can be read and difficult emotions can be more easily expressed.
Deciding whether this should be done within the office—typically the best choice, especially in work-related matters—or outside of the office over lunch, coffee, or a walk is also important. Regardless of those mediums, it’s important to make sure it’s the appropriate one for the issue and people involved.
However, some people do better over chat or email, where they have the chance to carefully think out—and edit—their statements.
In this case, it’s particularly important to be hyper-aware of what is said in writing, since it’s much more easily referred to (and remembered) than a quick or flippant comment in a verbal discussion.
Take care to ensure all people involved have a meaningful discussion is meaningful, rather than a gratuitous rant that causes more issues than resolution.
4. Give everyone a chance to speak
Once a medium is decided on to address the conflict, give the individual or everyone involved a chance to have their say and provide their point of view.
Frame the conversation by stating that a conflict occurred and reinforcing the fact that everyone should have a chance to express their understanding and feelings about the root cause of the conflict and the situation—and then allow them to have that chance.
It's a good idea to provide some ground rules here, which might include things like not placing blame, using "I" statements (more on that later), or keeping an open mind.
Step back and let them have their say individually, with no interruptions, outbursts, or judgment. Allowing everyone to be heard can often clear the air right from the start—and then you can dive into the actual issue itself.
As everyone is speaking, listen for places where there might be common ground in each person's perspective. This can help guide you toward possible solutions later on.
5. Use active listening techniques
Active listening is an amazing technique to become a better listener and can help with everyday project work, but it's especially effective in conflict resolution.
Give feedback as you listen, use small encouragements to show you’re listening, and restating the issues as well as pausing between statements can be powerful ways to let someone else know you’re listening and engaged.
6. Repeat back your understanding
While this is one of the major features of active listening, it deserves a callout of its own. We all perceive things differently, and unfortunately, our communication methods haven’t evolved to beaming our thoughts into each others’ heads at will—so taking every step to avoid a misunderstanding is important, especially in conflict resolution.
By restating your understanding of the issues or conflict back to the individual you’re speaking with, you solidify your own understanding and give the other person in the conversation a chance to correct you if you’ve misinterpreted their words.
7. Use “I” statements
“I” statements are a keystone of conflict resolution. By framing your thoughts around yourself, you avoid placing blame or focus on emotions and reactions, which helps stick to the facts and find the best solution to an issue (ideally a win win solution).
For example, you might demand from someone: “Why were you late to the client meeting? You know how important it was”.
Instead, frame the statement around your own reactions and emotions surrounding it, rather than the characteristics of the person you’re speaking to.
A more productive statement would be “I felt frustrated that I couldn’t start our client meeting at the scheduled time, because I promised them we’d all be a part of the meeting together.”
Statements like “so-and-so never includes me in decisions that impact design”, or “Working with so-and-so is difficult” turn into much more meaningful statements that can be resolved quicker when using “I” statements:
“I get frustrated when I’m not aware of decisions that impact my work until after the decision-making process”, or
“I find it difficult to do the best job possible when I find out about changes needed in my work after I’ve already invested a lot of time into it.”
A big leap in resolving conflict can be made when taking ownership of your emotions by practicing assertiveness and focusing on your thoughts and feelings, rather than putting others on the defensive.
8. Lean into the silence
Our instinct can be to fill in the silence when there’s a gap in the conversation, especially if that silence is awkward or difficult. In conflict resolution, that silence is very different.
Dig into those silences when having a difficult conversation so that the others involved have a chance to reflect and consider their responses. This is especially useful during brainstorming sessions.
Allow time for everyone to carefully consider questions or start statements that can be difficult for them. Encourage thoughtfulness, and don’t feel the need to fill in awkward silences when dealing with a topic that doesn’t necessarily have an easy answer.
9. Understand it’s out of your hands
Regardless of our efforts and conflict resolution prowess, there might be situations where there is no resolution that we can bring to the table. When that’s the case, we need to know when to give it up.
Maybe someone was just having a bad day, or are truly that difficult, or maybe you and your client will never see eye-to-eye on a topic.
If a situation is too messy or difficult to resolve on your level, it’s time to realize it’s out of your hands and should be given up or brought to the next step with HR or your manager.
10. Follow up
It’s nice to close out conflict resolution with a private follow up conversation in whatever manner is most appropriate.
Restate the resolution that was come to, thank the individual for their involvement and communication in resolving things, and offer to be on hand for any future issues, thoughts, or conversations they might want to have in the future.
This helps close out the conversation and make sure everyone is accepting of the place you’ve gotten to now that the conflict has passed.
Conflict resolution as a digital project manager can be a part of everyday life, but sometimes might need to be taken to the next level by going to your manager or HR department if things become especially heated or messy.
Regardless of the situation, these tips for handling conflict in your everyday professional life will help you find a starting point to hear everyone out. As for that manager, I mentioned in the beginning of this article?
He apologized to each of us individually after multiple project teammates approached him privately, letting him know how they felt after he stormed out of our meeting, and how that affected their productivity and feelings about the project.
What Do You Think?
Resolving workplace conflict is critical to maintaining your team's working relationships with each other, effective communication between them, and their general sense of teamwork. If teams are always fighting amongst themselves, it's very difficult to get them aligned on common goals for your projects.
These conflict resolution strategies and conflict management skills are part of the wider range of problem-solving skills that project managers possess. For more on project management skills and other aspects of the role, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter.