The ability to emotionally engage with an individual or group is a significant factor in establishing a constructive and helpful relationship. It is often the difference in whether an experience is perceived as positive or negative, regardless of the outcome. Engagement should be a fundamental course of action taken by professionals when addressing conflict management in the process of mediation, coaching, or counseling.
Research done by The Gallup Organization, and presented in the book Follow This Path by Curt Coffman and Gabriel Gonzalez-Molina, indicates that emotional engagement is more important than rational reasoning in influencing people and winning their trust and cooperation. This is true in all types of business situations affecting customer or client relationships. Engagement is also an important driver in maximizing employee and organizational performance. In a world that has become driven by data and outcome measures we need to recognize that the way a person feels is as significant as what the person thinks. Conflict management is more than just problem solving. Ideally it also addresses the relationships and feelings of those involved in a dispute. Effective conflict management incorporates both a concrete solution and a sense of emotional resolve. Engagement is a way to integrate thinking and feeling – head and heart – and can play a important role in constructively resolving differences.
The Role of Engagement in Problem Resolution
Conflict management and interpersonal problem resolution is a stressful experience. A professional working as a third party facilitator in the role of mediator, coach or counselor is wise to acknowledge the emotions attached to the individuals and situation before proceeding to attempt to develop a well thought out solution to the problem. Engaging clients at the onset in a discussion that puts the emotional dynamics on the table and attempts to allay them will put the parties in a position where they can use a cognitive process more effectively.
Normal feelings of anger, fear, hurt and frustration are typically present in conflicts between individuals or groups. These feelings, and the circumstances of the threat presented by the conflict, cause our bodies to react in the “fight or flight” stress response. We instinctively prepare to protect ourselves, manage the situation, and compete with our adversary by taking an offensive or defensive stance. In situations where there is a power differential based on role, position, personality, or other factors the dynamics of this threat relationship are compounded.
A competitive position in dealing with a challenging threat does not promote the use of cooperation, collaboration and compromise, which are often the goals of the third party facilitator. However participants that are engaged in the resolution process will invest more into reaching productive outcomes that may have value for both sides and will be more inclined toward collaboration or compromise vs. competing. Competing results in a win/lose outcome. Collaboration and compromise result in both sides winning at some level and respecting the value in doing this. Engagement opens the door to mutual understanding, and empathy in some cases. Recognizing that each party cares about the problem or conflict and its impact helps move it toward resolution.
Facilitators who are able to develop an emotionally engaged relationship with their clients, and ideally foster engagement between the individuals/groups in dispute, will typically find a more productive and successful resolution to the problems that are being addressed. The mediator, coach, or counselor becomes the emotional engineer who guides the process of identifying and utilizing the emotional triggers that will result in constructive interactions and results. Engagement will help to reduce stressful feelings and raise a sense of awareness, trust, commitment and hope. The problem resolution process is better prepared to move from instinctive self protection to cooperation. A cooperative approach to conflict management shifts the dynamics from “me against you” to “us against the problem”. Failure to establish engagement may result in interactions that are driven by “every man for himself” and encourages the maintenance of a competitive stance.
Techniques for Eliciting Engagement
The following are some techniques that can be used to develop emotional engagement with clients in the course of conflict management. Facilitators will find that their personal comfort and style in managing stress will be a factor in how well they are able to accomplish this function.
- Remaining neutral is important in many situations involving a third party facilitator. This does not prohibit the use of engagement techniques. However it is important that efforts related to engagement are offered equally to both sides in the dispute. In some cases the engagement process may be best achieved with each party separately and in other situations it can occur simultaneously.
- Introduce yourself by briefly explaining your role, the process that will be used and what the clients might expect. Use an open style of communication that includes appropriate touch such as a warm handshake, eye contact, and an invitation to sit down and relax. Participants will recognize the genuine care and commitment of the mediator/coach/counselor which can increase the level of motivation and investment on their part.
- There is a need for the facilitator to provide emotional/psychic safety and security. You must demonstrate acceptance and fairness, especially if there are power differentials between the parties. A sense that power and control tactics are being used will decrease feelings of trust and may reduce the level of open communication. Use language that is caring and supportive while also communicating control such as assuring that ground rules and boundaries will be respected.
- State an awareness of the likelihood that participants are experiencing stress and a range of emotions related to the conflict and efforts to resolve it. Acknowledge and normalize feelings as a way of helping the clients to accept this and bring them into the open. This process is important in making an emotional connection between the facilitator and the client and also between the clients and each other. This builds a bridge between the parties involved.
- Defining the right outcome is an important part of the engagement process – what is it that parties really want and what is it that will truly resolve the dispute? Having this discussion at the onset of the problem solving process will clarify the purpose and driving force behind the conflict. Connect this to personal beliefs, values and goals of the participants when possible. Acknowledge the importance of this to those involved – though they may differ from each other. Help them appreciate where the other is coming from.
- Be aware of your body language as well as that of the clients as this may convey up to 90% of what is being communicated. Point out and discuss any discrepancies that are apparent between verbal and non-verbal communications. This will help to assure communication that is open and accurate and let your clients know that you are “tuned in” to them.
- Ensure that participants want to proceed with the process. Watch for signs that may suggest resistance, reluctance or concerns and make an effort to identify and address these. This may be a sign of disengagement. Invite the clients to discuss their concerns so that they feel comfortable moving forward.
- Identify desired solutions from both an outcome and a feeling perspective. Sincerely listen to define what is essential or at the root of each side. Sometimes having the opportunity for participants to express feelings and/or address feelings is sufficient to reach closure on the conflict or problem. Other times participants will be confused or uncertain about what they really want and facilitating communication to clarify this will move them toward a successful resolution.
- Clarify and respect the feelings, concerns, and nature of the problems as presented by both sides and have them do this for each other.
- Ensure that participants feel heard and work to clarify for mutual understanding. This goes a long way toward constructive resolution and willingness to work on agreements.
- Give credence to opinions and beliefs even when not supported by data. This can lessen resistance and open the discussion for consideration of options that are supported by data.
- Find common ground where and when possible to show links, similarities and agreement. Help parties find the connection between their personal values/beliefs and those that will result from constructive solution to the problems.
- When appropriate address the value and purpose of the relationship the parties have with each other and how this is impacted by the conflict. When parties sense that the other side cares about and respects them and the situation it will break down some of the resistance. The opposite will increase resistance – feeling that the other party does not care and is only focused on personal gain.
- Offer summary statements to clarify and confirm. This will help to build the foundation of trust and understanding which is necessary to come to a resolution of the problem. It can also help to allay the fears of a person who feels that their perspective is not clear or understood by the other person.
- Review progress that is occurring. Give recognition and praise to efforts and results that are moving the problem forward. Provide positive reinforcement. Point out and summarize the progress as well as clarify the remaining barriers.
- Help parties to see learning and growth in their personal efforts to find a mutually agreeable solution. Encourage them to acknowledge efforts and give recognition to each other during the process. Thank you’s and other forms of appreciation will increase efforts to work together instead of against each other.
- Use a caucus or individual session to re-engage with a client is who is unable or unwilling to move forward in the process. Define any barriers that are inhibiting progress and attempt to re-establish a sense of trust and commitment to move forward.
- Assess for satisfaction in reaching a mutually agreeable resolution or decision. Inquire about the level of personal feelings. This shows focus on the problem and on the person.
- Summarize decisions and outcomes to ensure that both parties are in agreement. Seek clarification that both sides are resolved to move forward based on both their feelings and the terms of the agreement. In some cases the synergy and commitment can result in outcomes that are better than either wanted initially and can perhaps ward off future problems.
- Thank participants for their efforts to listen and work at understanding each other’s perspective. Comment on how this helped to lead to a satisfactory resolution. Allow participants to talk about the process and how this worked for them.
- Close the session with appreciation and a warm handshake. Encourage the parties to shake hands and make any final comments to each other.
Emotional engagement is a significant component of effective conflict management and problem resolution. The art of managing disagreement is driven by the ability to have the parties actively engaged with the facilitator and with each other around finding a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. They must trust the facilitator and the process. It is important to keep differences constructive and to work for collaborative discovery of solutions based on commitment, trust and cooperation. When parties are engaged disagreement opens the door to consideration of options that can result in integrated decision making and optimal outcomes.