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Navigating Conflict, Argument & Debate in Meetings

Thursday, July 2, 2015 - 16:00
Navigating Conflict, Argument & Debate in Meetings

“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”
— Margaret Heffernan, Author, Entrepreneur, Documentarian, Speaker

As CEO of five businesses, no doubt management guru Margaret Heffernan has led many, many meetings. And during those sessions, she surely has seen lots of “human interaction,” with her fair share of the “conflict, argument, debate” part.

That’s probably why she also has been known to say: “Making those around you feel invisible is the opposite of leadership.”

From entry level to executive suite, each of us engaged in business is called upon from time to time to lead a meeting—whether by audio conference, via the web or in person. This means we should take heed of Heffernan’s advice, because our turn at managing these human interactions inevitably will include our own share of conflict, argument and debate.

As Mike Figliuolo, another management guru, puts it on his thoughtLEADERS blog:

“More often than not, high performing teams operate in high pressure environments. Many times on a high performing team you have some strong personalities at play. When you combine pressure plus strong personalities, there are plenty of opportunities for conflict between the members of your team.”

Your job as the meeting leader, he elaborates, is not to play “referee,” but to facilitate resolution, i.e., move the business of the meeting forward. Step one, he advises, is encouraging participants in any skirmish to “focus on the facts” as a means of shifting the discourse from discord to analysis: “What do we disagree on?”

If cooler heads prevail, you can facilitate a discussion rather than a bickering contest. But first you need to ensure that the group’s ears are open.

“Forget leadership if no one’s listening. The right to be heard is earned,” writes Dan Rockwell on his LeadershipFreak blog. Rockwell has held leadership positions in such disparate industries as ministry and construction, and he offers multiple techniques for meeting leaders to facilitate dialog—and stay above the fray—in his post “12 Ways to Get People to Listen to You.” Here’s a digest:

Listen First, Speak Second

If you want people to listen to you, listen to them…

  • Slow down.
  • Provide pauses.
  • Relax your posture.
  • Repeat in your head, “What if they’re right?”

Ask First, Assert Second

Ask questions before making statements…

  • What would you like to know?
  • What’s important to you?
  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What do you know?
  • What don’t you know?
  • What have you tried?

Release the “Burden of Knowledge”

If you believe you know the resolution of a conflict between others, hold your tongue. When you feel you “know” the answer, you may feel obligated to share it. Tell yourself “I could be wrong” as way to maintain your silence and avoid sounding like a know-it-all.

Manage Tone, Volume and Pace

“Try a whisper rather than a yell,” says Rockwell. Sound confident, but stop short of arrogance. Get to the point quickly. Add explanations and reasoning after sharing conclusions. Focus more on what others need to hear and less on what you want to say. And if you realize people aren’t listening, stop talking and pose a question to get others to speak.

Honesty is Credibility

Never lie, and don’t sugarcoat unpleasant issues. Open up and show some vulnerability. It’s an invitation for people to open up to you—and listen to your direction.

Once a resolution is reached, encourage meeting participants to prepare for the next meeting by anticipating matters that may cause conflict, argument and debate. If someone feels another attendee may disagree with a topic that will be raised in the next session, use sub-conferencing to break out into small groups while you’re in a meeting or suggest those parties get together ahead of time and sort out differences. This practice respects the time of all others coming to the meeting without a stake in the dispute.

“By doing so, you’re going to build their skills and their capabilities,” Figliuolo says. “You’ll spend less time mediating conflict going forward, and your team members will be able to focus more on execution than arguing.”

How do you lead teams through conflict? Do you find yourself jumping to stop the debate immediately or do you take a step back and encourage discussion? Please share your experiences and thoughts below.

These are good tips, would it make sense to focus on how meeting medium ( in person or video vs audio, etc..) changes priority of some of these?  Could be a follow up or comment to this overview.

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