It can be surprisingly easy to bring order to a chaotic meeting and to turn conflict back into conversation—if you know how, says business author Joseph Grenny in the HBR.

Consider these four steps for turning conflict into conversation:

1. Interrupt the chaos

All emotions have a tempo. Calm emotions like happiness and connection are slow and deliberate. Emotions of arousal like hostility and defensiveness are fast and confused. Pulse quickens, thoughts race, and words fly.

One of the best ways to change the emotion of a group is to change its tempo.

As you attempt to intervene, decelerate your pace of speech. You may need to raise your voice a decibel or two to be heard above the rumble. But once you’ve attracted attention, lower your voice and speed.

For example, you might say slowly and calmly, “Hey team, let me take a moment to point out something I’m noticing.”

Smiling while you speak can also lower the emotional temperature.

2. Shift to process

Call attention to what is happening in a matter-of-fact way. This helps in three ways:

  • You give egos and tempers a chance to cool by changing the subject of discussion from the immediate problem to the problem-solving process.
  • You help the group soften their judgements of one another by giving them a unifying common enemy: the ineffective process.
  • You advance team maturity by inviting all to take responsibility for inventing a more effective process.

Be careful not to shame anyone for their role in the confusion. Lay out what appears to be happening, without assigning blame, and the consequences of continuation on the current path.

Once you’ve described the obvious, ask the group to confirm your observation. This is a critical psychological step.

When they explicitly acknowledge the process problem, they become committed to supporting the solution.

For example, you might continue with, “We’ve been at this conversation for about 25 minutes now. In my view we are repeating a lot of the same arguments, but getting nowhere. I suspect we could go another three hours and be in the same place. Do others see this the same way?”

3. Propose a structure

Offer a process that ensures all will be heard and slows the pace in order to quell the emotions. Then ask for commitment to it.

For example, you might say, “Mark, I don’t think we’re giving you a chance to lay out your arguments for the office remodel. How about if we hear you out first. The rest of us will attempt to restate your arguments until you feel we understand them to your satisfaction. Crystal, then I suggest we do the same with your view of why we should put it off for three more years. Will that work?”

4. Honour the agreement

Odds are that even with the new structure, lingering emotions will incite a few attempts to breach the boundaries. When this happens, you need not become punitive. All you have to do is point out the discrepancy, and ask if they want to continue with their commitment.

For example, “Crystal, you are beginning to explain why remodelling now is a bad idea. I think our agreement was to allow Mark to continue until he has been well heard. Do you want to continue with that process or propose something different?”

Given that the team bought into the structure, Crystal is likely to conform to the healthier structure – or the others in the room will encourage her to.

Granted, there are times when foes are so entrenched in their positions that simple interventions like this will be inadequate. But for the vast majority of workplace group tiffs, this works.

Next time conflict starts to boil up in your meeting, try focusing on the process rather than the content, and chances are that you’ll be able to defuse the anger and frustration long enough to move forward.

Conclusion

If meetings become tense, try this: Lower the emotional temperature by speaking slower, softer, and by smiling while you talk, invite the group to focus on the process not the content, and by encouraging those present to follow the agreed process.

 

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