By the time Lee visited HR to request a mediation, he was frustrated and mad. Despite many “feedback” meetings with his boss Amanda, Lee was concerned that he wasn’t getting the necessary feedback for career progression. Amanda would not give him clear direction about developmental goals and did not assign Lee tough and important tasks. Lee was giving this problem just one more chance with the mediator’s help before he quit the company. In Lee’s view, Amanda favored a few employees on the team, and for some reason, Lee was not one of them. Amanda’s view was the exact opposite. Equally frustrated, she told HR that she felt like all she did was talk to Lee, and Lee just would not listen. Her view was that Lee would not team well, was opinionated, and she regularly told him that other employees did not enjoy working with him when he held project leader roles. Amanda and Lee both agreed on just one thing: they had many meetings, and the sessions always ended in the same poor result. Amanda believed she gave feedback directly and succinctly, but from her perspective, Lee never learned a thing. Honestly, she was at the point of hoping he did quit because the entire team’s reputation was affected. Lee believed Amanda was a weak leader who could not articulate specific guidance on his tasks, performance, or development.
Despite many well-intentioned training and intervention efforts to help the workforce improve listening skills, frustrating dialog sessions resulting in conflict like this one are classic workplace struggles. For the past 20 plus years as Alternative Dispute Conflict practitioners (primarily working as ombudsman, conflict coaches, and mediators), we’ve helped rebuild thousands of workplace relationships, and we’ve learned a lot about how to discover the real issues underpinning conflict. We examined what we do differently to resolve issues, and we created the H.E.R.E. Conflict Dialog Model based on our real work. We learned that leaders are rushing to solve interpersonal conflict problems, focusing on top-level positions that are quickly and emotionally articulated, without taking the necessary time to discover underlying interests or needs. The workforce is too busy, and employees are often uncomfortable with creating the emotional relationship connections needed to create lasting solutions to workplace conflicts.
Our conflict dialog model, with guiding questions, encourages you to be open to perspective, with a wildly curious mindset, taking the time to be H.E.R.E. in the moment: Honor the relationship, Explore with the other, Reflect, and then Enable & Empower the way forward. We are calling for purposeful conversations that may initially seem like they will take too much time, but are surprisingly efficient. We think a little structure helps, and we know that using the H.E.R.E. model requires you to be vulnerable.
H.E.R.E. are the steps YOU need to take to have a transformational conflict-positive dialog session:
Honor the New Relationship
H: Honor the New Relationship. Taking a few moments before the conflict conversation to choose how you want to be in relationship with the other person is not only helpful; it is vital. In most conflicts, there is a relationship there that you must first acknowledge, even if it’s a temporary one. The critical first step towards shifting the relationship to a better space is a bit of self-reflection on how you want to be perceived during, and remembered after, the conversation. Kind? Direct? Honest? One thing that seems almost certain, if you approach the conversation from a defensive, critical, or negative posture, you are likely to elicit a similar response.
Honor the Relationship by considering your honest response to the following questions:
- What can I do to suspend judgment until I learn more from the other? Am I ready to be reasonably calm, or do I need to talk things through with someone else first so that I don’t make the problem worse?
- What can I individually do to create a safe environment, to cooperate and create with the other person, and what will I say upfront to the other person to help them know I am sincere?
- What do I believe we want (current perspective)? What do I imagine the other person wants?
- Am I truly committed to trying to work on both the problem and relationship?
When you are ready, someone has to reach out first! Take the time to work on these questions together, knowing that if you are the initiator, the other person may need time to feel safe enough to share:
- Do we agree to work hard to suspend judgment until we learn more from each other?
- What can we do to create a safe environment to cooperate and create with each other?
- What has happened, and what do we believe we want and need (current perspective on the issue)?
- Are we truly committed to trying to work on the problem and relationship?
E – Explore with the other. Exploring begins with acknowledging differences that exist without focusing on fault or possible results yet. In this step, the focus is on the opportunity to learn and create by discussing similarities and differences of positions. Ideally, each person will consider the other person’s perspectives and adapt their position as they hear new information. Perspective-taking is much like trying on a new coat when someone says it would look good on you—you don’t have to buy the coat, you just need to take it long enough to try it on. What’s interesting about perspective-taking is that even though you didn’t buy that particular coat, you may have a greater mindset about other coats in the future that you might not have considered before. Allow space for emotions in this phase, and name those that are present.
Key questions to explore:
- What do we know for sure because we have evidence (facts)?
- What do we believe to be true, but we can't be totally sure?
- What is working well?
- What are the challenges? What angers us the most?
R – Reflect. Reflecting is the step that allows you to both seek clarity and challenge assumptions. This key step is the tough part if you’ve done the previous steps well because this is when you finally have enough information, and perhaps courage, to focus on resolving the issue through joint dialog.
Take time here to consider the following:
- What do we know now that we did not know before we took the time to communicate—what is our deeper awareness?
- What do we agree needs to be addressed as a result of what we know to lead to a resolution?
- What do we want, or even need, to change in the relationship so that we can move forward (be made whole)?
E - Enable & Empower. This is the results stage where you draft action steps that you will commit to, and you will discuss how you will hold each other accountable. It is essential to co-generate ideas and create solutions with a future focus. When objections or pessimistic outlooks surface, they are discussed and conquered together.
Key Questions in this Phase Include:
- What's possible now?
- What do we intend to do next?
- When will we meet again?
- How can we help each other with the next steps?
- How do we both (all) feel now?
- How do we end this conversation?
In conclusion, we believe that a H.E.R.E. session is one of the intimate workplace encounters between two professionals, and the dialog about a conflict requires more structure than reserving a room, having a problem to talk about, and exchanging words. There are far too many Lee and Amanda conflicts in the workplace, and these conflicts cost money—wasted time, missed opportunities, and worse. The H.E.R.E. approach can potentially transform difficult conversations into opportunities for growth, healing, and lasting solutions.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers and not necessarily those of NSA/CSS, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.