In my last post on how to prepare for a conflict meeting, we took a look at how the members of a string quartet could prepare for a brewing ensemble conflict stemming from a perception that one of the members of the quartet was not fully committed to the ensemble and was engaging in behaviors that undermined the rehearsal process, threatened the quality of performances and ultimately called into question the viability of the group.
The situation is as follows:
Lately, one of the members of a string quartet (let’s call her Ann*) has been late and unprepared for rehearsals. She also sends text messages during rehearsals and appears to be distracted. One of her fellow quartet members (Beth) also knows that this member has been taking more outside gigs. Rehearsals are becoming increasingly unproductive and stressful and Tom, one of the group’s members is very angry about the situation. Another member, Joe, is more sympathetic to her situation and feels that it is time to talk to Ann and see if the group can resolve the issues and move on.
I explored a similar scenario with members of the Ensemble ACJW at a recent conflict management workshop. Here is the process that we used to resolve the quartet’s conflict.
1. Be open-minded
2. Make it safe to talk
3. Listen and communicate openly
4. Brainstorm and explore solutions
5. End the meeting with action steps: who does what by when and follow-up
1. Be open-minded
It is very important to start a difficult conversation with the right frame of mind. Come prepared to talk, listen and brainstorm solutions. Keep an open mind since there are often two sides to the story. As we saw in the last post, it helps to explore the different interests of the parties.
By using empathy, it is possible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider that person’s point of view. If you seek for understanding behind his or her actions, you will find you can be a bit more patient and sympathetic. Remember to ask yourself, “Why would a decent, rational human being behave in this way?” Moreover, give the person the benefit of the doubt and avoid the temptation to make him or her out to be a villain.
See various possibilities and visualize yourself handling them with ease. Envision the outcome you’re hoping for but do not become too wedded to your solutions or else you may foreclose the possibility of open dialogue.
2. Make it safe to talk
Once all parties are present, the goal is to stay in dialogue so that you can achieve a solution. You want to create a safe environment in which to have this conversation.
First, thank the person for coming to the meeting, since she could have said no. State the purpose of the meeting and invite her to share her thoughts on the subject:
It also helps to establish guidelines for running the meeting in order to keep the conversation on an even keel. Also, if the conversation becomes difficult, you can remind the speaker of the guidelines.
Here are some suggested meeting guidelines:
- Take turns so that everyone has a chance to present his or her point of view
- Maintain mutual respect and be kind to each other
- Speak in terms of problems, goals and interests
- Refer to observable behaviors instead of personality attacks
- Do not blame anyone for what has happened
Sometimes, it helps to set a time limit for the meeting as an incentive to get through the entire agenda.
Be sure to have everyone agree to the guidelines and write them down. You can post them so that all participants can see the rules while the meeting is going on.
In our scenario, Joe has agreed to be the meeting leader. Here is how the conversation might begin:
“Thanks for coming, Ann. All four of us are committed to having a successful quartet and we all appreciate your willingness to work things out. Lately, Tom, Beth and I have been feeling that our rehearsals are not going smoothly and I think we have a difference on how we want to run our rehearsals. We notice that you have been late to a lot of our rehearsals in the last month. You also are texting during rehearsal and at times, you do not seem to know your parts, which makes it hard for us to get as much done as we would like. We are concerned that we will not be prepared for our upcoming tour. We would like to hear your take on this and see how we can come up with a solution that works for all of us.”
Notice how Joe is careful to speak in terms of observable behaviors and he does not blame Ann for the problem. Instead, he invites her to share her viewpoint and emphasizes how all four members are committed to a solution.
3. Listen and communicate openly
Joe clearly stated the problem and invited Ann to give her point of view so it is time to move on to the discussion phase.
Starting with Ann, each person presents his or her point of view until all 4 members have had a chance to share. The parties will be on the lookout for common interests and shared goals. In our situation, Joe has already stated that all four members of the group share a commitment to having a successful quartet so he has gotten the meeting off to a good start by articulating a shared goal.
When Ann speaks, it is important for the other 3 members of the group to listen openly, objectively and carefully, without interrupting and resisting the temptation to judge, accuse or blame her.
It helps to communicate openly by asking questions to find out what is going on. Another useful tool to preserve relationships is validation, where one party shows the other person that her position make sense from her point of view.
For more tools on how to communicate effectively at a conflict meeting, click here.
Let’s see how the quartet’s meeting might unfold:
Ann is the first to speak. She is rather surprised at the group’s reaction and says so up front. She also did not realize how offensive her texting was and she apologizes right up front. In fact, she suggests that everyone turn off cellphones during rehearsal.
This helps Tom who is quite angry about the situation and has been blaming Ann for what is going on. Now, Tom can be more empathetic to Ann. He even volunteers to take notes of the meeting! Moreover, he feels comfortable sharing that he has been angry and he thanks Ann for her willingness to work with the group. Honestly sharing your feelings is important in resolving conflict since a conflict meeting can be an opportunity to clear the air.
Joe, as the meeting leader, thanks Ann for her suggestion to turn off cellphones and asks her if she has anything else to add.
It turns out that Ann is experiencing some financial difficulties and has taken on some extra work for money. That means she has less time to practice and she is upset about the fact that she is not as prepared as she would like to be. Beth, Ann’s good friend, validates Ann by saying that it is understandable that Ann would not be as prepared for rehearsal if she needed to make extra money and take outside gigs. Notice that Beth is not agreeing with Ann’s behavior; instead, Beth lets Ann know that Ann’s behavior makes sense under the circumstances. This helps Ann to be more amenable to resolving the problem because she feels that she has an ally in the group. She thanks Beth for sticking up for her.
Then, Ann brings up the fact that because she is so busy, she wants the rehearsals to be more efficiently run. She feels that the group talks too much and she wishes that they could agree on a different rehearsal protocol. Beth understands right away that this too has had an impact on Ann’s behavior and she once again validates Ann’s position.
Yet Tom and Joe are somewhat taken aback by Ann’s comment and it is Beth’s turn to chime in.
“Thanks, Ann, for bringing this up. I think we could all benefit from a review of how we rehearse since we have never discussed this issue in full.”
The others agree to explore how they can make their rehearsals more effective.
4. Brainstorm and explore solutions
This is the point in the meeting when brainstorming can be very helpful. Brainstorming is a process by which parties freely share ideas, using two rules:
- No idea is trivial.
- No 0ne can criticize another person’s ideas.
Joe, as meeting leader, is able to take charge here and sets a time of 15 minutes for discussion. Tom agrees to keep track of the ideas.
The parties are able to share ideas freely. Joe reminds the group that they are working towards the common solution of how to make rehearsals run smoothly and efficiently, which helps to move the conversation forward and keep the parties focusing on the common goals. After a full discussion, they come up with the following solutions:
- Set a goal for each piece that the group rehearses.
- Play through the piece without commentary and then open up the floor to a discussion of how to improve the work.
- Limit rehearsals to two hours, take a break and then decide if it makes sense to continue rehearsing.
Moreover, in order to make sure that people come to rehearsals on time, the group came up with a monetary penalty system whereby a late member was fined $1 the first time he or she was late, $5 the second time and $10 the third time. The money will be spent on tour expenses.
5. End the meeting with action steps
Because the purpose of a meeting is to come up with solutions, it is important to end the meeting with actions steps:
who does what by when and follow up.
Tom agrees to circulate the meeting notes.
Joe agrees that he will be the one to frame the goals for rehearsals, soliciting the opinions of the other 3 members.
Ann agrees to be the timekeeper at rehearsals.
Beth agrees to be the treasurer and keep track of the penalty jar.
6. What to do if things heat up?
This meeting ended successfully. But it could have turned sour when Tom and Joe were surprised by Ann’s reaction to the rehearsals.
Tom began to feel a bit angry again. Beth was able to read Tom’s body language and sensed his discomfort. She was able to diffuse the problem by saying that she agreed with Ann and she invited the group to take a look at their rehearsal protocol.
What if Ann had not stepped in so gracefully?
First, it is important to be on the lookout for signs that the conversation has become too heated by observing the words, tone of voice and body language of the other members of the meeting.
If the speaker begins to blame, make personal attacks or use harsh language, go back to the meeting guidelines and remind the speaker that everyone agreed to refrain from this type of behavior.
If necessary, take a 10-minute break. Harsh words cannot be taken back and they can threaten to derail the relationships. Therefore, taking a “time out” is a good preventive strategy.
And what happens if the issues are not resolved?
Know when to let something go. If you cannot come to an agreement, agree to disagree. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on. Perhaps there will be a future opportunity to resolve the conflict. Or perhaps it is a sign that the group cannot stay together. Only time will tell.
These strategies will not necessarily guarantee an end to conflict. Will they help reduce stress and improve outcomes? Absolutely! It all starts with your attitude and your willingness to look for the best solution possible.
*This scenario is based on an actual situation. The names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the parties.
© Astrid Baumgardner 2013