Resolving conflict between team members

It is perfectly natural for conflict to occur when working in teams. In fact some conflict is good. When people disagree about an idea or solution they can work together to formulate a better plan, a better solution and ensure the best possible outcome is achieved. However not all conflict is good particularly when there are personality clashes and people refuse to work together and the blame games start. This negativity will spread throughout the team making everyone feel awkward and soon overall productivity gets affected.

Managers need to keep an eye on the situation and know when and how to intervene. Here are the steps to take in resolving conflicts between team members.

Step 1 – Observe the situation

When you seen tensions rising between team members, don’t jump in and try and resolve it immediately. In order for team mates to work well together, they need to learn how to resolve their issues. Listen to their complaints and advise them on how to resolve the issues themselves.

For instance tell them to set up a meeting to listen to the other person’s point of view and to try find some common ground. Advise them to listen without interrupting and not to make accusations but rather explain what they feel and how they perceive the situation. Explain that the best time to hold such a meeting is when they are calm and not liable to let anger take over.

Step 2- Conflict intervention

If the team members are still struggling to get along after they have tried to resolve their issues, then it is time to intervene before it gets worse and the rest of the team are impacted.

Set up a meeting at the right time

Don’t rush in immediately and call an urgent meeting. This will only serve to raise tensions and won’t be effective especially if the meeting is squeezed in between other activities. Rather plan a meeting in advance and for a time that won’t be disruptive or catch them in a stressful state. Try and avoid a meeting first thing in the morning as morning rush hour can elevate people’s stress levels even further and they will already be worried about the meeting.

Setting the tone for your meeting

Before sending out the meeting invite speak to the parties first to explain why you are holding the meeting, that it isn’t a fault finding meeting and that they are not in trouble. Explain that you understand that there are issues and you want to help them resolve these issues. This will help set the tone for the meeting and reduce the resistance you might otherwise encounter.

The meeting invite and agenda

Make sure that you set out the agenda in the meeting invite so that it is structured, everyone knows what to expect and that it doesn’t go off track. Remember that the objective is to find a resolution to the issues so you should allow time for each party to voice their concerns, for them to find common ground and to identify the best possible solution.

Setting the ground rules

Once everyone is settled in the meeting, start off by re-iterating the agenda and then set the ground rules for the meeting. These should include:

  • Respecting each other’s opinions – ensure they understand that it is unacceptable to make derogatory remarks or play the blame game, in other words “he said or she said”.
  • No interrupting – make it clear that it is unacceptable to interrupt the other party while they are speaking. Everyone will be given an opportunity to speak.
  • Clear objective – state that the objective is to resolve the conflict and not to complain. They are there to find common ground to work from and to work together to resolve the issue.

Make sure that your ground rules facilitate co-operation and reduce the risk of the situation flaring up into an unproductive argument.

What is the problem

Before heading into the “how are we going to resolve this conflict” part of the meeting make sure each party has an opportunity to voice their opinion on what they think the issue is. They should be prompted to start their statements in the first person, for instance “I feel that”. By speaking from their own experiences of the situation, they avoid making accusatory statements which inevitably lead to arguments or defensive responses.

To move the conversation from issue to resolution prompt them into finding common ground before giving your own opinion. Ask each one in turn what they think the common issue is and what they think the solution is.

Note: If they are stuck in defensive mode you can adapt the three chairs coaching approach to help them see the situation from the other person’s perspective.


The three chairs approach – gaining a different perspective on a situation

Using 3 chairs placed in a triangle, each chair represents a different perspective on the situation.

First chair – Own perspective on the situation. Get the person to sit in the first chair and explain the situation from their perspective. Get them to explain what they are thinking, feeling and hearing regarding the situation.

Second chair – The other party’s perspective. Get the person to move to the second chair and explain what they think the other person might be thinking or feeling about the situation. They need to put themselves into this person’s shoes metaphorically speaking.

Third chair – An outsider’s perspective. Get the person to then move into the third chair and explain how they think an outsider might view the situation. They should also suggest any advice this outsider would give to resolve the issue between the conflicting parties.


Remember the main objective at this stage is to move the parties from a defensive state, to understanding the different perspectives so that they can start to identify common ground. You need to understand their personality types and judge their emotional states in order to determine how to do this. The three chairs approach is just one way of doing this. Other ways include good old fashioned asking them to explain what they think the other person might be feeling, or by using incisive questioning.

Agreeing a solution

Once you can see that the conflicting parties understand the true issues and they have stopped being defensive, use questioning to help them come up with the best solution for them. For example you can say “So now we have established that the real issue is that there are too many high priority work orders to process in the allocated time, what can we do to improve this situation?” or ask Joe “Joe, given that you are inundated with work requests, how can we help ease the load?”

Make sure that your questions focus on the issue though and not on the person. Keep asking questions that are aimed at resolving issues. This will help the parties to go into problem-solving mode and will keep the conversation moving forward instead of focussing on feelings and defensive behaviour.

Create an action plan

When a viable solution has been reached, make sure to draw up an action plan that each party agrees to. Document these steps or actions and make sure to send them to the parties after the meeting. Set up a follow-up meeting with the parties so that you can measure progress and help them take corrective action if the originally agreed actions don’t prove successful.

Resolving conflict can be difficult and you need to be sensitive to the emotions of the conflicting parties. The key is to listen deeply and understand that their behaviours are the result of an underlying issue. Don’t pass judgement or take sides, you need to remain neutral. Make sure you chose your words carefully as a careless or flippant remark can cause the participants to revert to defensive behaviour.


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