This article first appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Interaction (v.15, n.1) and is reprinted here with permission.
A unique tool to add to the box of methods for preventing and addressing conflict may be found in the flourishing field of coaching. At a minimum, coaching may be defined as an alliance between a trained coach and a client who wants to improve and enrich one or more aspects of his or her life. The role of the coach is a combination of personal consultant, supporter, advisor, motivator and trainer.
Individuals hire coaches to help them identify and work towards gaining balance in one’s life, to articulate and clarify a vision, to develop a mission statement for life, to better manage time and tasks, to make a career or relationship transition and so on.
At an organizational level, internal staff such as human resource professionals may coach staff in their career development as a way, for example, of supporting improved performance and productivity. External corporate coaches are also hired by companies to perform these tasks and others, such as helping executives to reorient and strategize their goals or groups of staff members to work more compatibly and effectively. In whichever context and for whatever objectives, coaching is gaining a foothold in organizations and corporations, in small businesses and at a personal level.
A unique coaching model that marries the field of coaching with the field of Alternative/Appropriate Dispute Resolution (ADR) provides a practical and preventative approach to conflict management. The particular model described here will be referred to as interest-based conflict coaching. This model is a coach approach using interest-based principles, which is aimed at assisting people who want to develop or improve the way they deal with conflict, whether on a professional or personal basis.
Among other benefits, conflict coaching provides individuals with the opportunity to develop insight into their own dispute resolution style and possible contribution to unproductive interactions. Conflict coaching also helps people to identify their own interests and those of others, to work on skills to resolve conflict in constructive and conciliatory ways, to practice alternative ways to replace habitual and counterproductive behaviours and to enable effective and satisfying problem-solving.
There are many forms that conflict coaching may take, contingent upon the particular objective of the individual client. The list of potential benefits cited above includes the type of goals commonly identified by people who want to generally improve the way they deal with conflict. Conflict coaching serves such purposes and may or may not be dispute specific. Forms of conflict coaching that are dispute specific include negotiation and mediation coaching.
Negotiation and Mediation Coaching
To a great extent, mediators coach parties when assisting them throughout the mediation process. However, the focus of the model presented here is on coaching one party who wants help with a number of matters that may be beyond the usual scope of the mediator’s role in any given mediation. Similarly, people might hire a coach to help ready themselves for a specific negotiation in which they are going to be involved. Some of these clients may also want to improve their negotiating skills in a more general way. Negotiation coaches work with individuals to help them in both of these areas. In the case of both mediation and negotiation, the interest-based coach approach may be used.
The role of a coach in terms of preparing a party for mediation or negotiation is quite different from a client’s counsel whose preparation often has an adversarial approach that focuses more on strategy and result. In both mediation and negotiation the coach assists in a number of important ways, by, for example, preparing a client for the process and helping a party articulate his or her perspective and needs on the issues in dispute. In addition, coaching commonly includes helping the party to acknowledge the other party’s needs and interests. Guiding clients to explore alternatives, to assess options and to evaluate possible solutions that may be mutually acceptable are also functions of the conflict coach. Directing clients to consider possible reactions from the other side and to respond effectively are important aspects of both types of coaching.
Practitioners in the field of dispute resolution will find that interest-based conflict coaching is another mechanism for helping clients manage conflict. Although interest-based conflict coaching differs in a number of major ways from interest-based mediation, some basic principles are inherent in the model’s application. These principles are familiar to mediators and dispute resolution consultants, although the method of coaching is typically more expansive.
Clients who want to become more effective at managing conflict in general, engage in varying degrees of self-reflection and analysis throughout the coaching process. This may involve the use of assessment tools and the performance of a series of fieldwork tasks. Alternate ways of addressing conflict are worked on with the guidance of the coach, who may use role plays and other methods to facilitate the learning process. The coach works synergistically with clients to help them transform counterproductive conduct and replace it with effective behaviours.
One of the main exceptions to employing interest-based mediation principles is that the coaching model employs a one-on-one liaison between the client and the coach. Conflict coaching sessions take place on a scheduled basis, e.g. weekly, for a specified period of time. Each session typically lasts from 45 minutes to 75 minutes. For negotiation and mediation coaching, the duration of coaching is usually more limited both in terms of time and by the scope of the specific dispute. The degree of self-reflection and analysis may also be more limited in these forms of conflict coaching. However, the underpinnings of an interest-based approach are integral to the process.
Conflict coaching is a unique and preventative form of dispute resolution. Assisting people on a one-on-one basis to improve their effectiveness in handling conflict and resolving disputes has far-reaching possibilities and applications. Managers, team leaders and others in supervisory positions benefit from this type of dispute resolution intervention, both as a coach and as one being coached. Similarly, work units or other groups of people who work together benefit from team building based on a conflict coaching model. Again, this is not only to resolve specific disputes, but also to gain skills to address and prevent future conflict that may arise. Coaching is also of great benefit to people who engage in any type of mediation or negotiation. In fact, conflict coaching applies to anyone interested in developing his or her skills in order to effectively handle conflict or a specific dispute, on both a professional or personal level.
Providing one-on-one conflict coaching is not for everyone who is trained in the field of conflict management and dispute resolution. However, for practitioners who are interested in adding interest-based conflict coaching to their tool kit, you already have the skill base to be able to do so. If you are inclined to provide one-on-one assistance in conflict management, learning how to coach conflict and combine the concepts will greatly expand the services you offer.