In recent years, many organizations are developing dispute resolution programs, that include mechanisms such as mediation and group facilitation. Training internal persons or retaining outside neutrals to conduct these processes has become commonplace. An even more comprehensive approach is being taken by the Canadian Federal government, which enacted a statute called the Public Service Modernization Act, requiring core government and agency departments to establish informal conflict management systems (ICMS). An ICMS provides all staff with a range of ways and access points for managing conflict, along a continuum from self-help to third party intervention. This initiative raises the bar for private organizations, some of whom have begun to consider what more they need to do, to more successfully manage conflict in the workplace.
Dispute resolution professionals typically provide conflict management training in organizations. For instance, managers are trained to facilitate disputes between and among their staff; HR professionals learn how to mediate workplace disputes; non-managerial staff may be taught to conduct peer mediation or conflict coaching; and so on. The duration of training, the substance and the extent of what can reasonably be taught and sustained is variable, such that many workplaces question what type of training is most useful and yields the most significant return on investment.
It is an understatement to say that generic conflict management training is really not enough. That is, it is not realistic to operate on the basis that one to three days of training in conflict management, fully equips people to effectively manage conflict, between themselves and others, or as a facilitator/mediator. It is a great start. However, it has become increasingly clear to this trainer, that other modalities such as pre and/or post-training coaching on conflict management, a staged approach to training and other methods help facilitate, optimize and sustain learning.
How Does Conflict Coaching Add Value?
Conflict coaching is a future-focused one-on-one process in which a trained coach helps individuals to increase their conflict competency, to be able to prevent unnecessary disputes and to resolve those that do arise. Coachee’s work on many things, including their specific issues with conflict and the behaviors that get in the way of collaborative problem solving and relations. In conflict coaching, individuals learn not only to handle their own issues with others, but to approach dispute situations in other capacities, e.g. as a facilitator or mediator, with more self-awareness and skill.
It is suggested here that for conflict management training, organizations and individuals consider the benefits of coaching participants prior to and/or after training sessions on conflict management, to increase learning and the application of their new skills, pertinent to their specific needs. Considering this notion, one suggested model for training managers or others, to facilitate or mediate disputes between his/her staff members follows:
Pre-training conflict coaching:
Coaching for conflict management training in advance of the workshop, is designed to help individuals to specifically identify and deconstruct his/her:
- particular conflict management style
- reactions to conflict
- conflict approaches that are the most and least comfortable
- conduct and that of others, that may interfere with managing conflict
- goals and action plans for managing conflict more effectively
In this stage, assessment tools may be used and the coaching focus is on increasing self-reflection and clearly identifying each person's conflict management gaps. Individuals also examine their own styles, apprehensions and tendencies. A minimum of two sessions of 1 to 2 hours, is recommended for pre-training coaching. Individuals who are prepared in this way, generally approach conflict management training with higher levels of awareness about their particular issues, enabling them to focus on these areas.
Conflict management training workshop:
Training managers to provide a conciliatory forum for addressing disputes between staff members, is prudent practice. This is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it gives managers the skills and confidence to effectively mediate differences among their staff. It also provides staff with a way to deal with their differences in a conciliatory way, with the support and assistance of their manager. Training that is geared to teaching how to facilitate conflict management not just dispute resolution, helps managers to assist staff take responsibility for their own conduct, rather than being told what to do or not to do.
As a starting point for training managers to facilitate disputes, it is important for trainers and the organization to be clear about the organization’s objectives. Understanding the corporate culture and what the goals of training are, is not necessarily a straightforward task. It is important for instance, that trainers determine and organizations articulate, whether relationships and outcome have equal weight, e.g. is the conflict management process for finding solutions or for mending the relationship, or both. The disputants may have their own views and so may the trainers, but if the organization wants a results-oriented mechanism (in which mended relationships is not the key), it is important for trainers to know this. Another consideration may be whether the organization wants the manager to ultimately decide the solution, or otherwise clarify under what conditions the manager may be directive.
There are many variables in conflict management training such as these, that are beyond basic tenets. That is, a "cookie cutter" program is not a responsible model for the supplier to offer or the organization to accept. Trainers need in addition to other variables, to tailor-make role plays and ensure all experiential exercises specifically apply to the organization and its stakeholders. Training groups of 8-12 managers is an optimum number, as is establishing individual and organizational measurement criteria, in advance of the training.
Another important variable in designing training programs is the number of days of a workshop. Taking managers from their work for more than a day at a time is not always feasible. With pre and post-training coaching, a suggested model to sustain training is at the very least, a "one-plus-one-plus-one". That is, day long training one month apart over a three month (or better yet, one day monthly over a six month period). The point of course, is to sustain learning and provide follow up pertinent to actual experiences, beyond a one-off workshop. That is, periodic audits by the trainer(s) to ascertain what issues arise, provide real life situations for case studies, "real" plays and ongoing discussions at the subsequent workshop.
Post-workshop conflict coaching:
Depending on the circumstances, individual telephone or in-person conflict coaching may be offered to the participants throughout and after the conflict management training. This could be between the various scheduled workshops, as well as after group training ends. Group telephone coaching may also be used.
Post-workshop coaching is aimed at sustaining participants' conflict management skills. One-on-one coaching after the process is complete is also helpful to ensure each participant has gained sufficient insights, confidence and skills, to facilitate disputes. Coaches are able to continue to coach people about their specific needs and ensure action steps for their ongoing development, are clearly articulated. A minimum of two post-workshop sessions of an hour in length is suggested and ideally, group telephone or direct coaching is implemented on an ongoing basis, for at least one time a month, over a three to six month period.
There are many models for training conflict management and the one suggested here for managers learning to mediate disputes among their staff, is one of them. Organizations have different views on what they want to achieve in this area and it is important for conflict management trainers to know what objectives they are there to meet. It is also important for trainers and organizations to look beyond traditional models to ones that not only help build and sustain skills. It is also important to assist people increase their self-awareness about how they "do" conflict. Individualized coaching (pre and post training) and specifically designed programs, provide greater opportunities, to learn and sustain more than process.
Although not a core competency at most organizations, the ability to manage conflict is not a skill managers have naturally. The importance of identifying effective training that teaches and sustains learning cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, it is more common to react once conflict has escalated (and the bottom line is effected), than engage in proactive measurements. Providing preventative tools that are also premised on seeing conflict as an opportunity to improve relationships, is a goal that may better ameliorate the toxic impact of conflict on an organization, its reputation, its staff and its clients.