Six Strategies to Structure a Challenging Conflict Conversation

In a previous article, I posed 11 questions to consider when preparing for a difficult conversation that will keep you focused, productive and constructive regardless of the other person’s reaction. Now that you are ready, implementing these six strategies will start the conflict conversation on the right path.

1. Set up the room. To create an inviting and safe environment, arrange the room to maximize engagement. Here are 5 tips:

  • Place chairs around a table so people can face each other.
  • Have chart paper or a white board to capture ideas, issues, etc. for those who are visual thinkers.
  • Provide drinks and snacks as this establishes an informal and warm tone.
  • Have a break out room in case you need to give people space to emotionally cool down.
  • Provide paper and pen for those who are kinesthetic thinkers and need to write and process information.

2. Create a positive tone. It is important to create a positive attitude for those involved in the conversation. One can simply open the conversation with “Thank you for agreeing to participate in this dialogue. The intention today is to work hard and collaborate on how we can solve the problems we are faced with in this situation. I need your focus and commitment to engage constructively and productively in this conversation.”

3. Establish ground rules or norms. Do not underestimate this strategy especially in high-intensity and emotionally charged conflict. Create the norms together with the parties. Do not impose these rules. Simply ask the question “What is needed to support the conversation to remain constructive and productive?” An example might be “We agree not to interrupt each other mid-sentence.” Or “We agree to listen as if hearing the issue for the first time.”

4. Establish a time frame. You do not want the parties to be in a highly emotional place and then have to end the conversation because someone has to leave for another appointment. Make sure all parties are aware of the exact time commitment for the conversation. I would suggest 2 to 4 hours for any problem-solving dialogue. The parties can return for multiple sessions.

5. Determine confidentiality parameters. It is critical to establish limits about what can be said to people outside of the dialogue. A confidentiality breach can quickly deteriorate the progress and trust that has resulted from the conversations. Create and memorialize an agreement with the parties regarding confidentiality. Examples might be “we agree not to discuss with other employees the nature, content or behaviors of these private conversations,” and/or “we will agree on who, outside of the dialogues, we will share information with and what they need to know in order to follow through with an action step.”

6. Create an agenda listing the issues. An effective strategy for keeping people on track in the conversation is to capture a list of the issues parties are bringing to the table. Use a chart pad or white board to list the issues. Then, have the parties prioritize the list in order of importance.