Managing Conflict in Meetings

Handling Disagreements on the Spot

Getting away from 'no'.

© iStockphoto/mediaphotos

"But that's ridiculous, Bob! We can't possibly have the new product ready in time for the Autumn Expo! What do the rest of you think? Is anyone else stupid enough to think we'll be ready?"

"Well, I can see your arguments for appointing Alison. But I just think James would be better, and you're not going to convince me otherwise."

Many of us have experienced tension and conflict in meetings. This can be exciting and energizing, but it can also hurt the team's progress and morale. If you're in charge of a meeting and conflict occurs, what is your role? How do you restore peace? How can you assure that these conflicts don't harm your work?

While you can't always prevent conflict in meetings, there are many things you can do to stop disagreements from damaging your team's wider goals. Consider the following:

  • Can you set up your meeting to reduce the risk of conflict?
  • How do you turn the conflict and tension into a positive force, and one that generates better solutions and results?
  • Can you reduce the negative impact of conflict?
  • How can you help those involved accept the situation when consensus isn't possible?

We'll look at each of these. As we do so, remember that there are two separate underlying reasons for conflict in meetings.

Types of Conflict

Conflict in business meetings usually falls into two categories:

  1. Real professional differences – Conflict can arise from very real differences in professional opinions. In many cases, these differences don't develop into open conflict. But conflict is more likely when the outcome is extremely important, when the decision being made is irreversible, or when the impact of making the wrong decision will reflect badly on those involved. When this type of conflict is left unresolved, it can rapidly spoil relationships.
  2. Power struggles and personality issues – Conflict can arise when individuals or groups dislike one-another, or feel that their positions are being threatened. This type of conflict tends to be more about people's personalities than about "facts" or decisions being made. The techniques we'll discuss below still apply, but you may also need to resolve the underlying problem. For more on this, see our articles on Conflict Resolution   (in particular, Thomas and Kilmann's conflict styles) and on Resolving Team Conflict  .

Reducing the Opportunity for Conflict

The best defenses against conflict often involve preparing thoroughly before the meeting, and chairing strongly during the meeting. If you develop a reputation for running tightly structured meetings, there's less chance that individuals who attend those meetings will try to pursue their own agendas. See Running Effective Meetings   for practical tips on how to do this.

Send out the agenda in advance, and when the meeting begins, ask the group to agree to it. Then follow your agenda closely, but don't be overly rigid. If a conflict arises, a good agenda makes it easier to recognize that the group is going off course. If people agree to the meeting's goals, interruptions that lead to conflict aren't as likely to occur.

You should also be alert for meetings where the atmosphere and dynamics of the people involved make it more likely for conflict to arise. These include gatherings where "known troublemakers" – individuals or groups with a history of causing conflict – are present. They also include meetings of new teams that have reached the "storming" stage of their team development – when individuals begin to struggle for influence, but the team hasn't yet established effective ways of working. Read more about this in Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing  .

In these situations, state the meeting rules in advance. For example, meeting rules might be as follows:

  • Individuals will be allowed to speak after raising their hands – and only one person may speak at a time.
  • The chair may summarize what has been said to make sure everyone understands.
  • Everyone will be invited to contribute, so that one person cannot take over the discussion.

As chair, you must be firm about managing and enforcing these rules! If the team needs to make decisions, you may also want to establish the decision making process, and ask all participants to agree to this.

Gaining Benefits from Conflict

Have you ever attended a meeting in which a conflict – probably the "real professional disagreement" type – was successfully resolved? If so, you can appreciate the benefits of working through your differences to a satisfactory conclusion.

Conflict is not, therefore, something you need to avoid at all costs. In fact, conflict can sometimes be the quickest and best way to make creative progress. You certainly don't want everyone automatically to say "yes" to everything without proper discussion!

Spotting Potential Conflicts Early

One key to spotting the first signs of conflict is watching "body language." If the conflict is mostly due to professional differences, rather than personality differences, the sooner you allow people to make their points, the better. Make sure that people have the opportunity to express disagreement as soon a possible, so that issues can be resolved and the discussion can proceed on a correct basis.

How do you know if someone is frustrated? Look for these signs:

  • Making facial expressions of amazement or disagreement, such as shaking the head or rolling the eyes. The person may also fidget, or move around in a restless or nervous manner.
  • Looking at other people to see if anyone else's body language or facial expressions reveal their disagreement with the speaker.
  • Whispering or writing notes to another person. This may indicate that the frustrated person is checking on his or her position or trying to gather support for a confrontation. This can apply to both types of conflict.
  • Staring, possibly in an intimidating way, at the speaker or potential target of confrontation.

When you spot the signs of conflict brewing, use the resolution approaches set out in the next section proactively rather than reactively. And nipping the problem in the bud is usually better, because then no one will have to live with the memory of "what was said at THAT meeting".

Resolving Conflict

So, what if you follow these suggestions, and an unexpected conflict still occurs? What do you do then? Here are some approaches and techniques you can use.

Depersonalization

This involves wording issues so that they focus on what one party doesn't like rather than the person who is proposing the unpalatable option. How does this work in practice? Let's go back to our earlier example:

"Well, I can see your arguments for appointing Alison. But I just think James would be better, and you're not going to convince me otherwise."

As a leader, you need to pick this up and rephrase the statement:

"So what you're saying is that while Alison clearly has strengths, James' strengths may well be more important."

From here, you can move the discussion into an objective analysis of the relative importance of different qualities.

Questioning

Another approach is to switch your team's focus from conflict to "research." Encourage people to provide information, rather than state that they're angry or disagree with something.

To achieve this, use some carefully phrased questions. Don't just ask yes-or-no questions – try to clarify what people are thinking. Ask for specific examples, and perhaps suggestions for how the "disagreeable" idea would need to be changed to make it acceptable to them. In some cases, the alterations they want may be quite small.

When a conflict arises in a meeting, you, as the chair need to take control. Don't let others start wading in to the conflict by interrupting you or the speakers.

Remove or Reduce the Perceived Threat

A key cause of anger or conflict is that people may perceive that they, or things they hold dear, are threatened. Perhaps they feel that something being discussed threatens their reputation, judgment, chances of leading a successful project, or chances of getting a bonus. Or perhaps they perceive a threat to a project they've worked hard to promote, or believe in strongly.

There are two parts to this: the perception of threat, and the threat itself.

This is where you need to explore the issue and fully understand what it is. It's possible that the perception may be wrong – perhaps based on faulty or incomplete information. Here you need to supply the correct information. Or it may be that the perception is correct, and the person is right to feel threatened. Here you need to address the situation.

Another thing you can do is make sure that you clear up unknowns, because the unknown is often treated as a threat. Going back again to our example of the Alison vs James hiring decision, you might ask the supporters of each to talk about what benefits their non-preferred candidate would bring to the team, and what areas for development they'd need to work on.

Take Things "Off Line"

There are times when you can't resolve a situation in a meeting: this is particularly the case where problems involve sensitive personal issues, which shouldn't be discussed "in public".

In this case, you'll need to acknowledge the disagreement, and arrange a specific meeting to address the issue later on.

Finally, remember that sometimes it simply isn't possible for everyone to be happy with an outcome. If you've given everyone a fair chance to express their opinions, and you've gone through a fair decision making process (where appropriate), don't take it personally when people are unhappy. This also applies to you – if you're the one who's unhappy with a decision.

Key Points

The best way to avoid conflicts in your meetings is to prepare properly, taking all factors into consideration. It's particularly important to make sure your expectations match what the group is capable of handling. Know yourself, and your team, well enough so that you're aware of tensions that may exist between people – and have strategies in place to deal with them.

If anger and conflict arise, move back to your agenda by questioning people to determine the immediate cause of the conflict. Develop questions to get people to clearly state their problems and issues. By doing this, you'll guide people back to rational thinking, focus group energy, and encourage learning and problem solving.

Apply This to Your Life

The next time you're in a meeting, closely watch the body language of participants. If you're chairing the meeting, consider a brief questioning session to reduce tension in anyone who shows signs of anger or frustration. This may not only help prevent a conflict, but it should also bring useful clarity to the situation.

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