Conflict coaching is a one on one voluntary and confidential process that combines ADR and coaching principles. It is at its very essence, an individualized method for helping people effectively engage in conflict.
A few basic similarities between the fields of ADR and coaching, include the basic premises of self-determination and confidentiality. While some of the techniques and practitioner’s skills are similar, there are some major differences.
An important distinction is that the goals of those who participate in conflict coaching may not only be about resolving conflict. Rather, individuals seeking coaching (referred to as coachees in this presentation), may want to work on ways to prevent a dispute from unnecessarily escalating, to improve their competency in conflict management, to develop stronger communication skills for a difficult conversation and other objectives, that are often more about managing, than resolving.
What It Is Not
Considering when conflict coaching works and when it does not – the subject of this presentation - it helps to distinguish coaching from other processes.
In conflict coaching, it is inevitable that coachees vent their version of the incident and their concerns to the coach. The coach remains supportive and non-judgemental and is for all intents and purposes, the coachees’ champion. While therapeutic by virtue of this experience, coaching is not therapy or counselling. For instance, coaches do not explore past experiences, or the genesis of the conflict behaviours and emotional responses.
This does not mean coachees do not refer to historical events, or discuss the impact that conflict has on them. It does mean there are limitations as to where coaches intervene. The context is the coachees’ conflict management goals and is essentially, future-focussed.
Conflict coaching does not work then, when coachees need or want counselling or therapy, to address unresolved emotional issues.
Mentoring usually occurs when a senior person in an organization or position of authority, provides more junior people with the benefit of their experience and expertise. Mentoring is usually given in the form of advice, information and other direct assistance.
The CINERGY™ model of conflict coaching, that I developed is like many other coaching models, in that it does not operate on the basis that coaches give advice. The operating premise as articulated by the International Coach Federation’s philosophy, is that coaches are “creative, resourceful and whole”. This is of course, consistent with the concept of self-determination and self-discovery.
Conflict coaching then, does not work when coachees expect advice and are not interested in or willing to participate in a process, that expects them to be or become their own experts.
Unlike mediation, in which a mediator facilitates a discussion with two or more parties in a dispute, coaches do not bring “the other person” into the coaching process to resolve the issues in dispute. Mediators may provide some form of coaching in pre-mediation meetings or in the process, e.g. in caucus. They are not however, a champion of one party. Generally, mediators focus on facilitating negotiations and discussions to assist both (all) parties identify their interests and work towards resolution of their differences.
Conflict coaching then, does not work if coachees expect the process to be more of the nature of a mediation, or for that matter, an arbitration.
Coaches do not act as an agent or representative for a coachee. That is, the coach will not on behalf of coachees, go to other people in support of the coachee’s goal or participate in a process, as the coachee’s advocate.
Coaching then, does not work if coachees want/need an agent or representative for a rights-based process. Nor, does a coach speak for coachees under any other circumstances.
There is some tradition that coaching was employed as corrective action, for discipline and other behavioural issues. Coaching has evolved in many ways and for many reasons, especially since the late 80’s. It is a process to help people be their best and achieve their personal and professional goals, personally and professionally. There are many types of coaching, everything from developing career objectives, to learning negotiation skills, to attaining work-life balance and so on. For the most part, people choose to go to coaching, although organizations may identify areas for improvement and introduce coaching programs to improve sales, communications, planning and so on. When it comes to conflict coaching, people are commonly referred, because they are demonstrating problematic conflict conduct in the workplace. Under those circumstances, it is not unusual for coachees to be resistant to the process and the coach. Lack of clarity or inconsistency about their goals, anger about being referred, assumptions about the reasons for the referral and other possibilities, have an impact on how coaching is received.
Coaches commonly work with resistant people and employ techniques to assess coachability and to manage the sources of the resistance. As a consequence, resistance does not flag that coaching is not viable. Conflict coaching does not work however, when referrals are inappropriate and when coachees resist to the point that they will not willingly engage in the process.
When Does Conflict Coaching Work?
This previous discussion on when coaching does not work, inherently points out when it does. There are other circumstances as well, when coaching applies.
Coaching in which a coach prepares a party for mediation, is a valuable application of conflict coaching. Coaching in these circumstances is focussed on ways to support the party being coached, beyond what a mediator does in pre-mediation meetings with each party. The coach’s role is not only to help prepare the coachee to resole issues in dispute and understand the mediation process. It is also to assist the coachee to rehearse challenging communications, to identify mutual interests and consequences, to expand thinking on options, strategies and solutions and so on.
The objectives of post-mediation coaching include to help one or both (or more) of the disputants, on an individual basis, to reach whatever goals remain in the aftermath of the mediation. This may include to:
- improve the relationship, when it remains strained
- improve conflict management skills, having realized and identified areas that cause the coachee concern
- address any unmet or unresolved matters, about the person or the situation
- consider the types of reactions and situations that lead to unnecessary escalation and work on ways to manage them for the future
Pre and Post-Training
Another useful application of conflict coaching is before and after training, e.g. for mediation, conflict management, conflict coaching, group facilitated process or other training. The rationale for this application is that people being trained in these areas, are usually able to identify specific areas where their own conflict management skills are lacking. This fact may preclude their skills, both as a conflict participant and as a practitioner.
With preparatory work, pre-training conflict coaching may for instance, help participants identify their particular conflict management style (e.g. through the use of assessment tools), consider and name the areas in which they feel least competent, establish their individual training objectives and development plan and so on.
Post-training coaching may be linked to pre-training coaching when applicable, or exist as its own process. In either case, post-training coaching is aimed at sustaining what was learned, helping people identify areas requiring further development and plans for that development, including action steps, timelines and so on.
Another application of conflict coaching is as a ‘silent partner’ to a mediation party, within the mediation process. To avoid imbalance at the table, this concept works best if each mediation party has a coach. Also, it is necessary for the mediator, the disputants and coaches to clarify their roles and ways of operating, in advance.
A viable model is based on the notion that the coachees are not only interested in resolving the issues in dispute. That is, there are other objectives for which coaching is chosen. This may include goals such as wanting to:
- improve conflict communication skills (and use this mediation opportunity to do so or learn from)
- gain increased understanding of one’s triggers and tendencies, e.g. to react
- shift destructive behavioural reactions, to constructive responses
- learn how to check assumptions
This model also presupposes that each coach is providing pre and post-mediation to his/her coachee regarding their stated objectives.
During the mediation, the coach does not speak on behalf of his/her coachee or otherwise participate directly in the mediation process. Rather, the coach observes the coachee, to be able to provide feedback relative to the stated goals and generally, assists with the coachee’s skills in conflict engagement. This coaching assistance is provided at caucuses (which may be requested by the mediator, coachee or coach), when it is pertinent to the focus of the mediation. Otherwise, objectives not relevant to the mediation, are addressed in post-mediation coaching.
Other situations when conflict coaching works Conflict coaching works in other situations, including the following:
- ”the other person” does not want to participate in a mediation
- a person seeking assistance does not want to engage in the mediation process. For instance, s/he may specifically state the objective of wanting to manage the conflict on his/her own, without intervention by a third person
- “the other party” does not show up for a mediation.
Conflict coaching is a dynamic process that has many applications and may be used instead of or, in conjunction with training, mediation and other conflict management processes. This may also include group facilitated processes and simply, to help people prepare to lead a meeting that has the potential for being fractious. Coaching may also be used to help people to effectively participate in rights-based processes. In short, coaching has application anywhere in the spectrum of conflict management processes, within or without an informal or integrated conflict management system.
In sum, conflict coaching is unique in many ways. This includes that it provides the support, assistance and encouragement that helps people improve their knowledge, skills and abilities to manage conflict, in an individualized process, that is specific to them. The growth of this process will undoubtedly have an impact on practitioners in the field of conflict management and on the range of techniques available to help people engage effectively in conflict.