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Conflict Coaching in the Workplace

Kari Boyle, Queen's IRC Facilitator
Publication date: March, 2019
Conflict Coaching in the Workplace

It is common for employees to seek help from their manager if they are experiencing conflict or relationship challenges in the workplace.  What are your options as a manager to respond in a way that provides benefits to the employee, to the workplace as a whole and to you?  Consider this scenario:

You are Karen’s manager:

  • Karen is a longtime front line employee in the Hamilton branch and has recently taken a promotion as a front line manager, overseeing 20 full and part-time staff in the same location.
  • Karen asks you for a meeting to discuss how to handle “a problem employee”, Frank. 
  • She explains that Frank has been resisting the improvements she has been implementing in the location’s workflows.  She worked there so long she knows all the changes that need to be made and began making them as soon as she became manager.
  • Karen explained that staff resistance has forced her to “manage them tightly”.
  • You have recently received complaints from three of Karen’s staff alleging that she was micromanaging, stifling creativity and allowing them no voice in the change management process.

How would you handle this meeting with Karen? 

It seems to you that she is looking for you to step in or at least to give her the answer to her difficulties.  Like many of us, your first inclination might be to jump in and give Karen suggestions, advice or recommendations or even directions about what she should do.  After all, isn’t that what she is asking you for?  And don’t we feel pleased that she has enough respect for us and our experience that she asks for our advice and direction?

In this moment you have a choice.  You can provide advice or direction or you could do something different.  But what?

Advice-giving might be appropriate in some situations, perhaps when it is a simple request, an emergency situation or some decisive action is needed immediately.

But I suggest that there are risks and potentially significant downsides (to you, the employee and the workplace) to taking that approach in every situation without further exploration.  In particular, there is a risk to the employee’s future growth and a risk to your time and role as manager.

What is a viable alternative?

Rather than giving Karen “the answer”, it is worthwhile to start by taking some time to reflect more deeply on the situation.  Karen is a new manager.  She has the difficult task of trying to manage people who were once her peers.  This is likely an ongoing challenge rather than a one-off situation. Is this an opportunity for Karen to learn and grow?  If so, how can you best support her in that learning?

Perhaps you could try a conflict coaching approach.

What is conflict coaching?

Conflict coaching is a relatively new type of coaching and my primary source of inspiration has been Cinnie Noble.[1]  She is a pioneer of the process she calls conflict management coaching (also known as conflict coaching). She explains that conflict coaching was developed on the foundation of three pillars: professional coaching, alternative dispute resolution and neuroscience. She developed her model in 1999, recognizing that workplace (and other) interpersonal disputes are not always about “issues” but can be triggered by how people interact with each other. People are looking for a one-on-one service model to help them manage disputes independently – with increased skill and confidence. A basic framework for conflict coaching starts with the client identifying his or her goal. By using a process of inquiry and other methods, coaches help clients to increase their level of awareness, shift their perspectives and focus on ways to achieve their objectives.[2]

Conflict coaching is one of many conflict management tools premised on the fact that conflict is normal and inevitable and provides an opportunity to improve relationships, prevent unnecessary escalation of conflicts, contribute to the overall health and well-being of workplaces, and reduce the costs of ill-managed conflict.  Conflict coaching has many advantages for managers as well as employees.[3]  The one-on-one approach helps to make employees feel valued and appreciated and encourages them to engage more in their own career.[4] 

You don’t have to be a professional coach to provide your employee with effective coaching.  But you do need to learn how to take a new approach when she comes for help.

How is conflict coaching different?

Conflict coaching is based on a number of important principles, practices and skills, including a number which focus on the “empowerment” of the person being coached:[5]

  1. The employee is willing to participate
  2. The employee’s self-determination is vital
  3. The employee is the expert in their own life
  4. The coach/manager walks alongside not in front
  5. The employee has the capacity to change the quality of her interactions with others
  6. The process is tailored to the employee’s individual goals and definitions of success
  7. The coach asks, rather than tells, using powerful questions
  8. The coach focuses on the employee’s strengths rather than weaknesses
  9. The coach helps the employee to learn from both failure & success

Just what does employee “empowerment” mean in this context?    

You may remember the old saying:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Advice-giving or direction is like giving the man the fish.  Coaching is more like teaching the man to fish.  It can lead to increased personal capacity, which in the long run, will save you time and frustration and encourage a healthier workplace.

For many people this approach feels unfamiliar, perhaps even frustrating.  Perhaps you believe that you know the “right” answer and that it would just be quicker to tell your employee what to do!

Coaching, however, asks you to hold back from advice-giving as long as the employee is still learning.  That might take quite a bit of self-control.

Empowerment means primarily inquiring rather than telling.  It means that the coach focuses on asking powerful, probing questions to help the employee set reasonable goals, to dig deeply to discover the answer for herself and then to develop a plan.  This process probably takes a series of meetings over a period of time in order to allow the employee to try things, discuss how it went and make adjustments as needed.

My daughter took a coaching course recently and after about three weeks came to me to express her dismay.  She wanted to become a coach because she felt that she had significant experience and insight that she wanted to share to assist her clients move forward.  The course was encouraging her to hold back on sharing that advice and experience and, instead, use questions to help her client discover insights for themselves.  Initially, she found that very counter-intuitive and frustrating.  However, at the end of the course which involved significant role-play and feedback, she recognized the real benefit of this approach.  She realized that it is actually consistent with her core belief that her clients have it within themselves to handle the conflict or challenge they are facing.  They just need help to access that strength.

Coaching can be a difficult transition for managers.  At first it seems like it takes so much effort and there just isn’t time in the day!

However, if the goal is the employee’s learning and growth (and the overall well-being of the workplace), to do otherwise is to over-function, inhibit learning and create dependence and resentment. 

Over-functioning parents create under-functioning children.  Telling (rather than asking) can seriously impede the maturation of kids.  It is the same in the workplace.

Bill Bullard says:[6]

Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge.  It requires no accountability, no understanding.  The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.  It requires profound purpose-larger-than-the-self kind of understanding.”

If you immediately tell Karen what to do, or explain what you would do in this situation, what are the chances that she will be back again with the same kinds of problems in the future?  Ultimately, you want her to learn how to be an excellent manager so she can resolve conflict in her team directly and model good conflict management skills.

Using conflict coaching

So what would a conflict coaching process look like in this scenario?[7]

Let’s assume you have a good working relationship with Karen (if you don’t, you will probably need to work on that first in order to provide helpful coaching).  During the first meeting, you can focus on asking questions that help Karen to explore the situation such as: 

  • What happened? [encourage Karen to articulate what is really on her mind]
  • What does “resistance” from your staff look like?
  • What is your response to those actions?
  • What is the challenge for you arising from all of this?  [encourage Karen to identify what is really important]
  • What do you want to accomplish?  [encourage Karen to set her own goal]

Then consider exploring some deeper explanations for the resistance, including:

  • What arises for you when you feel resistance?  [help her to identify her own reactions, feelings, fears etc.]
  • What might be underlying those responses from your staff?  [help Karen to see the situation from other perspectives]
  • What would be an ideal outcome here?

Finally, encourage Karen to develop some options for moving ahead.  Remember that, usually, Karen will be most likely to follow through with ideas that she has developed herself.

In developing your questions try to keep them open and avoid the “advice in disguise question” i.e. “Have you tried seeking input from your staff before implementing changes?”  This kind of question is a thinly veiled way of suggesting your favoured solution.

Many professional coaches balance client empowerment (questioning) with some advice-giving in appropriate situations.  The trick is not to go to advice or solutions too quickly without first giving the employee a chance to learn the lesson themselves.  Like most new skills, training and practice will assist you in building your own capacity for conflict coaching.  Good luck!

To learn more about conflict coaching, check out Cinnie Noble’s books (footnote 1).  And consider participating in the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts course, where you will learn and practice conflict coaching.

About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari D. Boyle is a conflict engagement practitioner, consultant, trainer and retired lawyer. She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives. She enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to improve citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict management options in the workplace and beyond. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in Vancouver for 14 years, worked in-house for 6 years specializing in legal services management, led mediation research initiatives at UBC, and taught conflict resolution as an adjunct professor at UBC Law School. She continues to support system reform and access to justice initiatives.

Kari is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.

 

 

 


[1] Cinnie Noble, C.M., BSW, LL.B., LL.M. (ADR) is a chartered mediator (C.Med) and professional certified coach (PCC). She is the founder of CINERGY Coaching and the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY Model (2011) and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You (2014). Both are available on Amazon.ca. Cinnie’s website (www.cinergycoaching.com) has a great selection of helpful papers and articles.

[2] Taken from Frydman, R. (2015) Conflict Management Coaching in the Workplace. ADR Update Fall 2015. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from  https://www.cinergycoaching.com/wp-content/uls/2015/09/ADR_Update_Newsletter_Fall_2015_Conflict_Management_Coaching_RachelFrydman.pdf

[3]Kelleher-Flight, B. (2012). 7 Advantages of Conflict Resolution Coaching. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from https://gdpconsulting.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/7-advantages-of-conflict-resolution-coaching.pdf .

[4] Maynard, J. (2019, February 12). Four Ways to Provide Individual Attention Like a Coach. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from https://leaderchat.org/2019/02/12/%ef%bb%bf4-ways-to-provide-individual-attention-like-a-coach/.

[5] Noble, C. (2011). Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model. Retrieved March 12, 2019, from: https://www.cinergycoaching.com/conflict-management-coaching-cinergy-model/ Amazon.ca.

[6] Bill Bullard is an American educator and this quote is taken from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/573919-opinion-is-really-the-lowest-form-of-human-knowledge-it .

[7] Obviously, each situation is different and the following questions are only examples of how a coaching conversation might emerge.