Key advice on mediating conflict

Nobody enjoys conflict, least of all between board members, but it happens. Conflict deflects people away from what matters in the business and onto the purely personal. Festering resentments can profoundly undermine company performance, so it’s essential to resolve them as soon as possible.

You could engage a professional mediator, and that can help, but with the help of the following principles you could save yourself time, expense and ill-feeling.

Assume agreement is possible

This should be your default position: after all, if you’re not convinced a resolution is possible then your efforts at mediation are likely to be half-hearted. Without a commitment to this assumption, conflicts are much more prone to ending up in litigation.

Most people involved in disputes are quick to believe that mediation is futile, which is all the more reason for you take a leadership role and reject this kind of defeatism.

Stay positive and self-assured

Conflict can be scary. But this isn’t a good enough reason to shy away from it: as a leader, you’ll often find yourself in situations where the only way forward is to grasp the nettle. An excellent way to stop yourself getting too caught up in your emotions is to quite literally become aware of the ground beneath your feet.

Keeping perspective can help to convey a calm demeanour and make your position clear to others in a non-aggressive yet commanding manner.

Keep calm and carry on negotiating

It’s the most misused slogan of our age, but “Keep Calm and Carry On” is popular for a reason: most of us are engaged in a daily struggle with high levels of background stress.

And it’s underlying stress problems which tend to fuel many conflict situations. For the same reason, board-level disputes have a habit of escalating, but this isn’t an inevitable outcome.

If you can stay calm and keep a healthy perspective on any feelings of fear or anger, tense situations are less likely to spiral out of control. You’ll be far more able to keep the best interests of your company and the team in mind, and you’ll be a better listener. It’s also helpful to take an honest and clear-headed look at your role in the conflict, and think carefully about how you could improve things.

Use active listening skills

Quite often, angry people get angrier because they feel they’re not being listened to. A good listener can be worth their weight in gold in these situations. Fortunately, listening is something you can learn, and the most effective strategy is one called active listening.

Active listening involves giving physical and verbal feedback that shows that you’ve understood what the other person is trying to express. Feedback can be as simple as the occasional nod or as sophisticated as paraphrasing the gist of their words. It also means granting the person with something to say enough time and space to say their piece.

Avoid ad hominem attacks

When it comes to your turn to speak out, it’s best to remain as tactful as you possibly can. When emotions run high it’s all too easy to start blaming others: it’s also tempting to give in to the easy lure of the ad hominem attack. But the acts blaming and highlighting others’ weaknesses ultimately undermine your position: you’ll look bad and you won’t have managed to express the real problem coherently.

Use your imagination to move forward

To mediate successfully you have to be clear that although the past is where the problem lies, the solution is in the future. Therefore, in order to resolve disputes it’s necessary to keep discussion of past failures to a constructive minimum. We’re all horribly familiar with circular arguments whose focus is purely on reciting a roll call of problems, and you already know that these are well nigh impossible to resolve.

In contrast, the heart of effective dispute resolution lies in finding a workable way forward. As a leader, finding solutions is what you excel at, and it helps to remember that conflicts, even at board level, are simply problem-solving exercises in disguise. A group brainstorming session can be an excellent way of getting everybody to pull together, forget grievances, and focus on developing a robust accord.

Written by Bob Bradley, founder of MD2MD.