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...
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