Conflict Resolution for Emotionally-Intelligent Musicians: How To Prepare for a Conflict Meeting

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Working successfully with other musicians in an ensemble or another collaborative project involves not only an exquisite blend of musical styles and skills but also a high degree of emotional intelligence to manage the relationships with your fellow musicians.

Inevitably, when creative people come together, there will be varying ideas on how to approach the music as well as how to run the rehearsals. A healthy exchange of ideas can result in a stronger group.  What happens when the healthy exchange spills over into a clash to ideas that makes the group member feel uncomfortable?  These uncomfortable feelings are the first sign that the parties are experiencing conflict.  In fact, musicians high in emotional intelligence know how to read the signs of anger and are able to slow down so that they can react appropriately in the situation. Often, members of an ensemble avoid the conflict, for fear of offending their fellow musicians or in the hope that the conflict will somehow go away.  Yet at a certain point, it is important to address the issues and not avoid the conflict because of two key factors that weigh heavily in an ensemble:  the relationships and the outcome.

  • the relationships will suffer or even deteriorate if there is no attempt to resolve underlying conflicts; and 
  • decisions are made by default, resulting in a poor outcome.

For example, what if one of the members of an ensemble does not appear as committed to the group as the other members?   Take the following situation:

Lately, one of the members of a string quartet 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 also knows that this member has been taking more outside gigs. Rehearsals are becoming increasingly unproductive and stressful and one of the group’s members is very angry about the situation.  Another member is more sympathetic.  The fourth members feels that it is time to talk to this member.

What should the members of this ensemble do?

The good news is that there are steps you can take to resolve conflict, come up with stronger outcomes and restore healthy relationships.  We have already seen that conflict management requires a high degree of emotional intelligence.  

Let’s see what process this ensemble can follow to move towards a resolution of the brewing conflict.  



Before diving into a conflict meeting, it is important to prepare in advance.  Here is a useful process that can help set up the conflict meeting for success:

1. Manage your emotions

2. Define the problem and Identify the goals and the interests

3. Decide if the time is right to resolve the conflict

4. Ask for a meeting

1. Manage your emotions

1327383 64930133Before you embark on meeting with someone to resolve a conflict, you need to be in the proper frame of mind. If you feel angry, the conversation is likely to backfire. So cool off and take some time to think through the issues (steps 2-5 below).  If a situation calls for an immediate resolution, take a few deep breaths, ask for a 10-minute break and then begin your conversation.

In our example, one member of the ensemble feels angry and betrayed about his fellow ensemble member’s behavior so he needs some time to cool off, even if this means postponing a conflict meeting for a few days.  The two other members of the ensemble can help him to talk through the situation and enlist his help in thinking about how to resolve the conflict. 

For more strategies on how to manage your emotions and boost your emotional intelligence, click here.

2. Define the problem and the interests

One of the most important aspects of resolving a conflict is to use two concepts from the Harvard Negotiation Project:

Separate the people from the problem and focus on the interests of the parties

This means defining the problem in terms of objective behavior, rather than as a personality issue.  In our example, there might be a temptation to characterize the texting member as “uncommitted”, “unreasonable” or disrespectful”.  Yet, that will only fan the flames of the conflict. Instead, let’s focus on the observable behaviors here:

  • Being late to rehearsal
  • Not knowing your part sufficiently well to be able to play in tempo
  • Sending text messages during rehearsal

From the perspective of 3 members of the ensemble, the problem is that as a result of these behaviors, rehearsals have become unproductive and not enough time is spent on the artistic aspects of the piece due to the inability to play through the works at tempo.  There is a genuine concern that the quartet’s performances will suffer and an ultimate fear that perhaps the group will fall apart.

The next step in preparing for this conflict requires the use of empathy to determine what might be the problem according to the other person.

Ask yourself the following question

Why would a rational, decent person would be acting in this manner?

This humanizes the individual and makes it easier to see the conflict from another point of view, which also has the benefit of reducing some of the raw feelings that you may be experiencing towards the other person.

In this case, perhaps the “texting” member is afraid that she cannot play at tempo and masks her fear by avoiding rehearsals (i.e., by being late) and by texting.   Maybe she is having financial difficulties which are causing her to take outside gigs, another reason why she might not be as prepared as she once was.  Or maybe she is having problems in her personal life.  So the problem is that she is unable to keep up with the rest of the group and she may very well be afraid that the group will ask her to leave.

Finally, look at the interests and goals of the parties.  All four members, as committed professionals, want to have a great performance.  Thus, they all have a common interest:  a great performance.  It’s a matter to how to get there.  

Perhaps the texting member finds that rehearsals are inefficient so that it is not worth it to be on time.  She may also be bored when not playing, which might explain her texting. So the problem may very well be that rehearsals need to change.  And because she is having financial difficulties, this may exacerbate her feelings of lack of engagement.

3. Decide if the time is right to resolve the conflict

933783 42306628Once you have analyzed the problem and explored the interests and goals, you must then consider whether the time is right for addressing the conflict by asking if this is a problem that can be negotiated. Here, this is most likely a negotiable situation since a change in the observable behaviors at rehearsal would most likely resolve the problem. That means that it is worth having a meeting to talk about the situation.

All 3 quartet members agree that avoiding the conflict is no longer a viable strategy because both the outcome (the performance) and the relationships are at stake and therefore, the quartet should make it point to talk through the issues.  

If one of the members of the quartet is going through a particularly difficult patch, it might be wise to wait until he or she is able to focus. However, do not use this as an excuse to continue avoiding the conflict!

Finally, while there is always a risk that the party whose behavior is at issue may not agree to the meeting, it is important to raise the issue before the situation deteriorates further.   Therefore, the benefits outweigh the risks of asking for a meeting. 

4. Ask for a meeting

Once the decision is made to have a meeting to resolve the conflict, it is important to invite the other party to attend a meeting.  This may be quite challenging  because it means confronting the issue and letting the other person that you have a problem.  If you have concluded that now is the time, stick to your guns!

Moreover, it is very important to go the person who is the source of the problem and have an honest and kind conversation.  Here are some suggestions of how to go about asking for a meeting:

  • Approach the person privately and directly, either in person or on the phone.
  • Refer to the issue as a problem, not a conflict.
  • State the issue as you have defined it in step 2.  Tell the person that you would like to find a solution to this problem.
  • Ask when is a good time.
  • If the person is busy, get him or her to commit to another time.

As for what to say, here are some suggestions:

“I’m concerned about our rehearsals and I would like to discuss an idea that I think will help us work together more effectively.  


“I think we have different perceptions about how our rehearsals are going I would  like to hear your thinking on this and see what we can do to resolve our differences.” 

And never attempt to resolve a conflict by email!

What if in the case of our quartet, the three members started a chain of emails wherein they blamed the fourth member and complained about what she was doing?  

This would merely inflame the situation and make it harder to resolve the issues. Moreover, if the email accidentally were circulated to the source of the issue, the situation would undoubtedly blow up and there would be a lot of hurt feelings. 

Let’s assume that our texter agrees to a meeting. We are now ready to sit down and resolve this conflict—the subject of my next post!

© Astrid Baumgardner 2013