Conflict Resolution is a key skill in working effectively in engineering organizations. In this workshop, we'll review the causes of conflict, how to navigate and negotiate differences in perspectives, and develop language and process skills to manage, mitigate, and prevent conflict. With a basis in I/O Psychology and Management Science, this talk is relevant to all engineers from entry-level individual contributors to engineering executives.
Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming to my workshop today. The workshop is called From Conflict to Co-operation, and our focus will be on conflict in engineering organisations, techniques for conflict resolution, and, you know, conflict avoidance in general. While I go along a brief introduction, stand up, stretch a bit, I know this is the last workshop of the day, so maybe do a couple of jumping jacks, raise your heart rate, elevate your attention, energy level, get ready to wrap up the day, and maybe cap off in a couple of hours with a couple of pints for sure, if you would like.
Now, a bit about myself. My name is Jordan Adler. I'm the head of developer engineering at OneSignal, as well as an ambassador. In my role of engineering, I had an opportunity to develop processes and set technical strategies for OneSignal. Previously, I've evolved engineering activity at Cruise and Pinterest, and led an API engineering at Pinterest, developer advocate at Google. At Google, I had the opportunity to experience all sorts of conflict in my role as a manager of technical partnerships between major organisations and Google, as well as setting developer relations strategy from a technical perspective for a number of products in the Chrome and Android product areas.
So these conflicts were caused by a variety of reasons - we will get into some of those later - and, in addition to this lived experience, I have had an opportunity to prepare this workshop through research in the fields of management science, human behavioural biology, industrial organisational psychology, conflict theory, and interpersonal socio-linguistics, business ethics, negotiation theory, game theory, communication theory, and objection occupational health psychology. My hope is that I can distil this knowledge into the next couple of hours wherefore each of you to be effective in applying that theory to the software engineering organisations of which you are a significant and meaningful part.
For a quick sense of the audience, do me a favour and raise your hand, either physically, I think Zoom has a reaction button, I will try to raise my hand. If raise your hand if you've ever been in a conflict. That's good, okay. I'm going to go ahead and lower my hand. Okay. Now, raise your hands if you've ever been in - ever had a conflict-resolution training of any kind, if you've done any kind of conflict-resolution training or any conflict-mediation experience. Cool. So we're all pretty well experienced in having conflict and not so experienced in resolving conflict. That is okay. That's fairly normal.
So, to give you a sense of how this workshop will break down, we will start by going over kind of the context of the meta on this workshop, and then get into some brief overview of the central nervous system, the acute stress response which underlies human emotions at behaviour in conflicts. We will practise with a quick guided meditation exercise that you can take with you, and then cover conflict theory and conflict in the workplace generally.
We will do a quick regression into non-violent communication which is a set of communication techniques for understanding the unmet needs that can be hidden motivators for folks' behaviour. Often people don't immediately understand the reasons why they may feel upset and this tool kit will enable you to effectively identify and work towards resolving those unmet needs. After the lecture, we will break into groups and practise using non-violent communication in a brief exercise.
Then we will take a quick break and move right into conflict resolution. And that portion of the workshop will focus on what to do when a conflict has already occurred and leverages some of the therapy jargon we've picked up along the way. We will break out in the groups again as role play as two engineers and engineering manager doing a conflict in motion, and pivot to apply the knowledge we've gained to avoid conflict in the first place. In my opinion, this is the most important part of the workshop, and, if you're not too mentally fatigued to take back with you to apply at work, that's the good stuff. There will be notes. As noted, I will share my lecture notes, so you will have the opportunity to go through this.
Finally, we will open the floor to an open conversation where folks can share the experiences that they have had and supplement the material we have covered with their lived experience as well. I'm really excited for that part of the conversation, because I'm sure I will have a chance to learn. As a quick note, this is the first full run of the workshop that I've done, so I would invite any of you to share any feedback you may have on how to improve the exercise.
I think I've laid out some of my primary objectives with the workshop, so if there is anything I might have missed or glossed over in the details, or need to unpack more clearly to enable you to be effective in avoiding conflict primarily, and resolving it secondarily, I would love to get your perspective. Now, on to some brief behavioural biology: some of you may remember from biology class that the nervous system is the portion of the body that manages communication, automatic function and executiv e function. It's broken down into two parts: the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and these elements process and disseminate information.
The other component is the peripheral nervous system which acts as a bridge between the central nervous system and the body. One key component of this is the autonomic nervous system, built up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. I'm giving you a - the sympathetic nervous system activates a broad set of functions when the body is excited - doing jumping jacks, moving around, seeing something in the environment that startles you or scares you, that is the sympathetic nervous system working.
The parasympathetic nervous system activates a broad set of functions that occur when the body is at rest, called the "rest and digest, or feed and breathe" activities and include a whole host of bodily functions you wouldn't want to be engaging in in a dangerous situation. All are running at some baseline level to engage the homo stasis of bodily functions. However, signals from the brain can tilt the balance of activities from one system to the other.
The second notable are the HPA and HPTA axes of the endocrine system. These are two of the major parts made up of components of the brain and the central nervous system as well as endocrine organs such as the thyroid and parathyroid. And pituitary. These three components, the HPA access, the HPTA access, and the autonomic are what undergrid the stress response. Before we move to the next ... there is a long chain of evolutionary history that have developed these systems in ways that could enable you to be more effective in understanding and managing the behaviours. Such as what to engage in difficult conversations, when, you know, for example, there are many psychological tricks that are based on leakiness, handing someone a hot beverage when you try to ask them something is a way to utilise some components of this system to maximise outcome.
The stress response: it regulates the organism's response to a stressor, such as a perceived signal of a threat in the environment. Much has been said about the stress response in general. I won't go too deeply. On a high level it floods the body with neurotransmitters, or the brain with neurotransmitters, necessary to - for one of a number of knee-jerk reactions. We call these the X, the flight or fight response. The responses include fight, flight, faint, fawn, and freeze. Now, I'm sure you can imagine what fighting looks like in professional settings - argumentation, yelling, things like that, rude remarks. Thinking, sometimes called flopping - fainting, flopping, part of the common stress response.
Freezing often looks like shutting down, total or partial non-engagement, and it is quite common, in fact, and the fawn stress response in nature looks like rolling over but in the workplace it's a hidden submission to intimidation. So it is also suboptimal outcome in stress response, and in engaging in conflict. We will get into some of the different strategies from engaging in conflict later, but the stress response can nudge people towards one of these suboptimal strategies.
This well-evolved offence physiology is a barrier and a way of resolving conflict. There are a number of any perceived psychological barrier to professional goals can trigger the stress response and cause folks to behave in non-co-operative fashion. It doesn't take a dangerous animal, or someone kind of shaking you to trigger the stress response, if you're working towards a goal and there is something in your way preventing you from achieving that goal, whether that is policy, or individual decision-making, that can create and trigger the stress response. It is also a common cause of ineffective work behaviour in group settings.
Colleagues can fawn or freeze in response to stressful behaviour of a co-worker, and, when we talk about psychological safety at work, we're talking about eliminating the triggers of these behaviours and encouraging all participation by all members of the organisation. So if you have one takeaway from the portion of the workshop, let it be this: the stress response naturally occurs. It is bad for our work. You can use your thought to retrain your brain's response to environmental signals, and either to intentionally excite or calm your autonomic nervous system, and kind of, you know, manage your stress response.
You may wish, for example, to increase your focus and processing speed by exciting your autonomic nervous system with short rapid breaths or bursts of physical activity. That is the objective that I had early in mind in this lecture when I asked you to step up and get moving to elevate your central nervous system and excite your body overall. More likely, however, you may wish to calm your nerves with slow, deep breath and reduce processing of environmental stimuli. Let's give that a quick practice with a little guided meditation. I would like you to sit in a comfortable, relaxed, but upright posture. Straighten your upper body. Place your arms parallel to the ground. Drop your chin just a bit. Close your eyes. And follow your breath in and out for a moment.
Breathe in slowly. Slowly and deeply as you can through your nose. Hold it for as long as you can. And release it all slowly through your mouth. Keep it out as long as you can. Repeat this process a few times. Observe as you feel your heart resting and breath shallowing as you continue to breathe in deeply. Do you feel like your heart rate is kind of lower? Do you feel more calm and at ease? This is part of the process of triggering that autonomic nervous system to create calm and depress the excitement that is naturally occurring.
Now, in this course, I've asked you to take physical steps to bend your autonomic nervous system to your will. With meditative practice, you can eventually manage your autonomic nervous system, your executive function and thought alone. You can choose to lower or raise your heart rate.
People often talk about these expert monks who can kind of with only a thought increase their heart rate or decrease their heart rate and survive freezing scenarios. The reality is anyone can achieve that with years of meditative practice. And it really doesn't take much. You can even retrain your body's automated response to environmental stimuli through a variety of techniques often called cognitive behavioural therapies. These techniques enable you to recognise elements of your environment and change the processing that subconscious elements of your brain engage in when they see this to respond either by through calming or excitement.
To keep this in mind as we move on, everyone is capable of developing themselves to manage their emotional state in the workplace, and be a productive and effective member of your engineering organisation. Even clinically significant biological causes that cause conflict can be addressed either through a treatment with the medical professional or kind of behavioural therapy in other techniques.
With enough empathy and effort, we can all learn together to work effectively, and if there are barriers causing us to behave in an excited emotional states, we can overcome them together. That is either through co-operation, meditation, other text techniques. So I'm going to go ahead and pause there, and that covers the kind of bulk of what I wanted to talk about in terms of the biological components, and I would love to open the room to conversation. I know some folks have had some chat. I would love to get some questions and any thoughts that folks might have.
Let's move into a little bit of conflict theory, so moving on from our second lecture of the workshop, conflict in the workplace. In the conflict transformation school of thought, which is one kind of philosophy for conflict theory, conflict is defined as a natural process of achieving harmony. David Anderson Hooker is one. Precepts of this school of thought and defines conflict as two ideas sharing space, two intentions sharing space.
Diana Francis in this school of thought defines conflict as the friction caused by difference, proximity, and movement. And under this perception, conflict is not violent, but rather a natural sociological process of co-operation between, within a system where diverse ideas and intentions exist in a complex web of interconnection. So that is true, certainly for any workplace, but also society at large.
Let's talk about how an optimal and healthy work place should function. In a healthy workplace, non-violent and non-judges conflict is occurring on a regular basis. I think about engineering organisations being teams of teams of teams. Any organisation is teams of teams of teams. You can visualise in your mind's eye as a tree of vectors. So you have maybe an org chart. At the top, you have your CEO, and to each CEO, each function reports, maybe legal, product, engineering, and so on, sales, and marketing.
And each of these missions, each of these teams or functions is a vector, right? It is an arrow in space pointing at a particular direction with a certain level of magnitude behind it. So it has magnitude and direction. It has power and purpose. And each of these teams' purpose or power - let's probably talk about the magnitude first. Each of these team's magnitude is an operational power. Teams with more resources, power, or operational effectiveness can have more magnitude. We will think about that more in a moment, but I'm going to spend quite a bit of time talking about direction.
Direction is ultimately, ideally, a team has a clear and concise mission statement, and that mission is the direction of our vector. For example, a legal team might want to focus on keeping the company from having, experiencing losses, right? That is their direction. And they may have an amount of power behind that depending on the power imbued by them organisationally through the CEO, as well as the number of people they have working towards that mission. Now, ideally, these mission statements are what we call "MESE" which is mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive.
Think about an engineering organisation. Engineering teams might break itself down into back-end and front-end. Well, that's fairly mutually exclusive, if you're building a certain kind of product, it only has a back and front end. There is nothing else to cover. There are no gaps in the mission statement. It is also comprehensively exhaustive. It covers everything there is to cover in the space. This means that - sorry, it is mutually exclusive meaning they don't have overlapping kind of functionality. So that MESE objective means that no layer of abstraction, whether it is a generally within a function, because functions themselves at the top-level functions themselves necessarily are MESE, but below the functional level, you hope that the layers of abstractions are non-overlapping and do not create gaps that can cause failure to achieve missions. So the missions will be in conflict with each other. That's okay.
Organisations should create balance, and the product of an organisation is a vector that is a product of all the vectors underneath it - the tree of vectors that align together into a single arrow pointing in space in a particular way.
The legal team - a specific product team might be developing tax software. If either side has full power of the organisation, myopically focused on their mission, it will result in bad outcomes, developing tax software without consideration for protection of the company will undoubtedly result eventually in company-killing lawsuits. Total protection of the company without consideration for the development of new software products will result in stagnation and eventually also the death of the company. I'm sure we can find examples of both fail cases in the annals of history, and I'm sure there are organisations right now, where they're dead and it's playing out in real time in the marketplace.
When these teams co-operate, however, they balance their missions and work on behalf of the greater organisational good. In order to achieve that, they have to engage in constructive conflict. This healthy conflict is necessary to resolve alignment of these vectors, and is governed by processes that can either be perfectly documented or totally illegible. Successful organisations frankly kind of appear both ways. There is not a strong correlation between success and robust - I mean, there is a correlation, but it's not super strong.
There are lots of organisations out there which are successful in spite of how poorly things are managed behind the scenes. Organisations that do not have clear and well-defined processes for mission co-operation between their functions will result in inefficiencies in interpersonal conflict. People think mostly about destructive conflict which is unhealthy disagreement which results in stress for workers and leads to an environment of psychological unsafety.
Psychologist Daniel Katz has developed a model which outlines three primary root causes: economic, value, and power conflict. Economic conflict is caused by constrained resources. In our settings, with , these can take multiple shapes, perhaps a recruiting team is understaffed and has to split its time between multiple stakeholders between sales and engineering.
If the engineering leader, sales leader and recruiting leader fail to create balance that is in the best interests of the organisation writ large, that will result in conflict that is not resolved constructively and disempowers the overall organisation. Perhaps an organisation is cash-strapped and has to decide which engineering teams to focus on and which to cut. Perhaps the CFO of a large multi-national has set head count growth caps for the company's divisions and each division head has to divvy up amongst their group leaders as they see fit which can be a source of economic conflict.
Value conflict involves partially incompatibility between team ideologies or principles. So I will give you an example from my Google days. Google Search and Google Chrome may seek to influence the direction of the web itself but do so with different objectives and values in mind. Ideally, the organisation overall structured in a way to resolve these differences, but it is not always the case. It is not necessarily optimal or possible for total value alignment to exist within an organisation.
Values are often driven by ... but there can be emergent properties resulting from the consensus of the kinds of employees who would want to work on that project. Surely the type of people who want to work for Google Ads and the kinds of people who want to work for Google Chrome have different values. Even if their leaders sought to create alignment by standardising company values, some differences would necessarily arise, and interpersonal value conflict can occur.
Power conflict is the third of these can occur when a party seeks to increase its level of power relative to another and often engages in behaviour that increases or reduces power, like increases their own power or reduces the other's power. It's more abstract and can make many forms and often we have to look at things over a long timeline to see this happen. If you consider a tree of vector model organisations, this is when a particular vector tries to increase its its own magnitude by appearing more effective, or making another vector, decreasing its magnitude by making, causing it to appear less effective.
For example, product management team of a sub-brand of a car manufacturer - Ford Pinto - might withhold information from a centralised operational recall team in order to prevent a recall that would have negative PR for the Sub-brand. That negative PR would reduce the power of the team and may be an existential threat to the team itself. That behaviour may be precipitated by calls from the sales team to close the brand due to poor sales. When faced with an existential threat folks can engage in poor behaviour.
Each of these conflict root causes can occur at any level of the organisation. I've talked a little bit about intergroup dynamics but there are others as well. At the lowest of the branch of tree we had interpersonal conflict which is between individuals and takes many shapes. Interpersonal economic conflict can be two or more engineers needing access to a machine learning training server. The conflict can be exacerbated by additional situational factors such as looming project deadlines or personal life stress. It could easily be resolved by provisioning another server but that's not always available as an option. Maybe it takes a lot of time, it's expensive, or not an effective use of resources.
Interpersonal value conflicts is the result of differences in personal values. Often they're not necessarily values in the absolute sense. For example, most people would say they value transparency and that they value kindness. However, an individual preference for transparency over kindness may result in a communication style that is blunt and direct. Relative to another preference for kindness over transparency, critical feedback from that party may appear brash or excessive and result in interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal power conflicts can be subtle and insidious.
As Lears rely on second-hand information, individuals can report actions of behaviours of others that are coloured by their interpersonal power conflict. This can even happen subconsciously. For example, if a worker perceives another worker as competitive for future leadership opportunities they're seeking, they may seek to increase their likelihood of success through flattery of leadership, or engaging in domineering behaviours by stealing the mic or doing other things that are silly power games that often come up, unfortunately.
Next up is inter group conflict. We've talked about team level or function level that can happen at any level of abstraction. It can occur between distant teams conflicting with each other indirectly as well through some shared resource. Finally, there is, I reckon the inter-organisational conflict which looks outside of our tree of vectors mindset, and kind of thinks about two separate trees engaging with each other. It's often encountered in partnership functions, so if you're engaged in partner engineering, or sales engineering, you may see this kind of conflict.
Let's talk about how economic or value conflict might look like from an inter-organisational context. A timely example of inter-organisation wrap economic conflict might be the competitive actions of lawsuits filed between Blue Origin and SpaceX as they both compete for the award of NASA government contracts. The conflict could spill over into other domains, Elon Musk takes potshots at Jeff Bezos is a result of this conflict.
Another example would be the bid to take over the radio spectrum that is made available by the transition from analogue television to digital television radio waves. So the FCC regulates the usage of the radio spectrum and created the bidding process specifically because inter-organisational economic conflict is necessary. It is necessitated by the fixed nature of the radio spectrum, and, without regulation, the airwaves would suffer from a tragedy of the commons because anyone could do whatever they want and there would be constant chatter and no-one would be able to enjoy the benefits of that service and technology.
Inter-organisational value conflict is common. Consider how Facebook and Google view the web differently. When Google designed solutions for the web, it generally does so in a way that it is consistent with its value of openness, and Facebook, however, is mostly mindful of its own values which include kind of growth at any means necessary as part of its kind of core corporate entity. Facebook has instant articles ... there are alternatives that have the same platform feature but the differences and values between the organisation s create differences in the solution and the technical design of the solution implemented.
Another example is Google and Apple's collaboration and browser implementers of the standards bodies that manage new web APIs. Apple value secrecy in development as part of their goal to create and manage the consumer experience and expectations. That is a core part of Apple's values. That often butts up against Google and other participants in the web standards process preference for openness and transparency. Often you will hear standard body participants complain that Safari withholds information about changes to proposed APIs until they've made the announcement of the kind of release available to consumers.
Inter-organisational power conflict is often complex to understand and requires a broad view of time and markets. Consider, for example, Apple's marketing itself as a privacy-minded phone offering. This is not because Apple genuinely values privacy. If that were true, it would not have been a focus only recently. Historical technical decisions would have appeared differently.
The reason that Apple focuses on privacy in the market is a consequence of the competition between Google and Apple in the mobile operating system market. And it is a way for Apple to suggest that the alternative, which is not stated, which is Android, is not privacy-conscious. Google can't take a strong counter position here because of its strong ads business. Never mind the fact that Apple is competing in the same ads businesses, but so far behind in the markets that it can't be painted as a market leader and get away with kind of causing or exacerbating this inter-organisational power conflict in the minds of consumers.
Additionally, is inter-cultural conflict and moves beyond the business world and into geopolitics or cultural differences in value, power, and economics. Consider Google's complicated history with the People's Republic of China, or challenges in collaborating between open and direct Israeli business culture and hierarchical and deferent Japanese business culture. In healthy settings, conflict occurs where decisions are made that impact more than one party. That can be in a visual group or inter-organisational level as well.
There are three among areas in engineering organisations where this occurs: technical decision-making, policy decision-making, and process decision-making. Technical decision-making, things like what language do we use for this project? Policy decision-making can be things like what languages are even allowed to be used in this company, right? Or what times do people work, and how do they co-ordinate with each other?
Process decision-making is a bit more meta, because processes outline how individuals are supposed to co-ordinate with each other, and deciding how to approach co-operation itself can be an area of conflict. Another sort of meta conflict zone is living with the decisions that have already been made, or deciding how frequently decisions can be revisited. Because you want organisations to be nimble and adaptable, it's often in appropriate for most decisions to be unrevisitable indefinitely.
However, if a decision were to be constantly revisited, it can weak en adherence tonight decision and create conflict as choices, policies, or processes are questioned. Let's take root causes and move a layer up to the most common causes of conflict. Not an exhaustive list but in my experience, most conflict is caused by a few of common factors.
Perhaps the most frequent one that I see is folks viewing their work as a product extension of their identity. As craftspeople, we are often passionate and prideful in the work that we produce. However, that pride can make hearing and implementing constructive feedback challenging or hurtful.
When folks say "pride comes before the fall", this is what they're talking about. If you're unable to healthily actionalise feedback about your ugly baby, the organisation itself suffers. Lack of effective communications is a common challenge as well. Creating alignment between individuals and groups requires that information be spread and absorbed across a wide range of the org chart.
If folks aren't leer and concise with their communication, there will be conflict. Lack of leadership can create conflict. Organisational leaders are not just authority figures imbued with power to resolve conflict and decisions but personifications of of the groups they oversee. If they engage in petty power struggles or fail to correct bad behaviour for think they are responsible, that will create conflict.
Lack of aligned values is another challenge. Without alignment in key areas people will naturally engage in value conflicts because we live in a world of diverse values in individual and group preferences. Another cause of conflict is unresolved past conflict. Just as a flywheel of repeating successful execution of operational processes that resolve mission statements between functions can create a virtuous cycle of growth and innovation, repetition of destructive conflict can create a vicious cycle that drags an organisation into a culture that results in failure and loss of personnel.
Any sort of change will introduce the possibility of conflict. As new decisions are made, people will reassess the validity of past decisions in the new world. Well, you know, this is the technical choice we made today, but yesterday we have a new policy on some matter, and maybe we should change what we are doing now instead. Sometimes people can unilaterally break from some part of the past as a secondary consequence of a change that was made.
Finally, any form of stress, especially stress caused by change, can be conflict-inducing. As we find our chronic stress revels increase, our ability to self-regulate our emotions decreases which can create behaviour which results in unhealthy conflict and often spread virally. We have covered a bit in the realm, and then jump to conflict resolution.
Often when folks interview, I will ask them: why did you leave the organisation that you're looking to leave? They will say something like "office politics". I will say, "What do you mean?" I usually try to dig deeper and understand what kind of conflict was occurring. Why it was unhealthy, and why they were unable to make it constructive? Office politics is often a shorthand we use to refer to conflict and the silly games that humans can play when they engage in interpersonal power conflict.
Now that you have the language and tools necessary to deal with the office politics, I would say to retire that term and be effective participants in mission alignment. If you're in an organisation where you see people engaging in silly and stupid power games, vote with your feet and go somewhere else. There is no reason we should tolerate manipulative behaviour from our colleagues and leaders, and understanding how conflict can be used helpfully and is key to building a constructive conflict.
Before we jump in non-violent communication, just quickly I want to open the floor if anybody has questions or anything to share. Let's take a quick digression to a communication call called non-violent communication which is a strategy for understanding with a focus on avoiding judgment and maximising compassion, developed by Dr Marshall Rosenberg following his lectures in mediation during the process at integrating the public education system in the American South.
NVC leverages mindfulness to enable us to speak neutral ly but empathically about emotionally charged topics, encouraging us to observe without evaluating and identify and express the feeling of unmet needs that can create stress or friction in our lives. When our emotional pain might nudge us towards lashing out at each other, NVC enables us to connect and build bridges towards common understanding.
As a participant or leader in the workplace, you can leverage NVC to discuss the things that are emotionally charged or challenging to hear or to say. We will go over some of the jargon and structure of NVC but ... NVC emphasises non-judgmentalness.
If you find yourself jumping to conclusions about why an individual may behave the way they do, pause and collect your thoughts. Ask yourself: in what world would a well-intended person behave this way? There are often many unknowns that contribute to the behaviour of others. And it is hard to have an open mind when it is filled with conclusions. Dialogue begins with a statement of obligation like I see that you're raising your voice or your fists are clenched. Necessary, we extend our empathy to dig beyond the observation and guess at the emotional states contributing to the behaviour.
For example, might you be feeling angry, or are you deep in thought, or perhaps feeling gloomy? One may need to follow a line of indirection to arrive at the correct underlying emotion. You might ask: are you feeling gloomy because you may be feeling lonely or hurt? Once creative created a shared understanding of the emotional state, for example, loneliness, we may try to dig at the underlying need that may or may not be well fulfilled. We may ask: are you feeling lonely because you have an unmet need to be heard? We may use empathy to build a shared connection to help the individual feel safe and comfortable in sharing their inner thoughts.
I might say, for example, personally, I can feel lonely sometimes at parties because I'm not very good at speaking in group settings and feeling hurt. Especially if someone else is very boisterous, it can be difficult for me to get a word in edgeways and participate in the conversation. Finally, we can make a request for a plan of action to help meet that individual's needs.
For example, we might ask: would it be okay if I asked your opinion in group conversations to help bring you into the fold? Or is there a way I can tell you may have something to say, and need to help finding a break in the conversation? Or perhaps we say: would it be okay if I asked John to pause and let others speak in group settings? He may not realise how boisterous and domineering he's being. That right there is the core of NVC. It is a four-step process: observation, feeling, need, request.
That four-step process can be directed in dialogue outwardly or inwardly. We've covered inbound communication, where we draw information from another sow let's see that how that might be applied when expressing one's self. I may see I see you going desk to desk to ask colleagues to after-work drinks. Often you pick a small group which doesn't include me. That can make me feel lonely because I feel the need for community with my co-workers, and exclusion feels like I'm not part of this community. Would you be willing to include me more often when you organise after-work drinks?
This is a four-step process: observation, feeling, need, request. It's not intended to be prescriptive in terms of specific words used. Nor is it necessary to be a true dialogue. You can actually use this approach internally in one's internal monologue to gain better understanding of one's self and emotional states and create accidentals for managing these emotions and ensuring your own needs are well met.
As an exercise of a this workshop, I encourage you to expand your vocabulary of emotions to enumerate the words that describe emotions. There is a broad range of nuance not well captured like sad or happy. There are additional needs is to so I've noted community and self-expression but countless others like touch, authenticity, harmony, creativity, and so on.
Ultimately, everyone has a need to feel like a person of value in a world of meaning. NVC helps us create a world of meaning, and ensure all the persons in that world have their value recognised and optimised. So if you're curious a rely bit about NVC, I recommend the book Non-violent Communication.
Exercising the muscle can help ... let's take a quick chance to practise this new skill with an exercise. You will feigned link to the participant instructions in the notes. Go ahead and give those a review. I'm going to share my screen so you can see them as well. We will break out into pairs and practice using the language and process of NVC to explore conflict.
Let's talk about conflict management and conflict resolution. What happens when a conflict has happened and we have to intervene. Conflict management can be described as the process of reducing negative outcomes while increasing the positive.
Generally, when faced with conflict, individuals tend towards using a number of different approaches. Under the Thomas Kilman model these are avoiding, accommodating, competing, collaborating, and compromising. You will get lecture notes at some points, so you can - we're going to have a lot of these kinds of models to talk about. So I will just kind of go through and try to give you the knee takeaways after we write them.
So the model is based on two dimensions of behaviour that helped characterise the five different conflict-handling modes. The first dimension is assertiveness which describes the extent to which a person will try to fulfil their own concerns. And the second is co-operative ness which describes the extent to which a person will try to fulfil others' concerns.
So the five conflict-Hanning modes fall within the scales of two dimensions of assertiveness and co-operative ness. Avoiding has low assertiveness and co-operative ness. In this case, an individual tends to withdraw from a conflict and therefore no-one wins. They neither advocate for the positions, the concerns of the positions they hold, nor for the positions of others. They might ignore conflict or take a passive attitude in the hope that the issue resolves itself.
Avoiding the conflict is rarely best approached, but in the context of a multi-conflict setting, it might be beneficial to choose your battles. I would say generally avoiding is almost always suboptimal. The accommodating style has low assertiveness and high co-operative ness. So we're not advocating for one's own needs but we are kind of interested and invested in the needs of others.
The individual doesn't avoid the conflict altogether, but rather sacrifices their own needs to keep the peace, and offer total kind of accommodation to the other's concerns. That peacekeeping does not result in harmony as the full range of the space is ceded to the ... party and no counterbalance is struck.
The competing approach is high assertiveness and low co-operative ness. The individual fulfils their own concerns at the expense of others, and uses powers at their disposal to win the conflict. Winning, however, is sub suboptimal because it fails to balance the needs of all parties.
The compromising approach has moderate assertiveness - not too low or high - and moderate co-operative ness, not too low or high either. Kind of a Goldilocks. Compromise is when neither party wins nor loses, but you objective end up achieving suboptimal results by splitting the difference.
The collaborateing approach has a high assertiveness and co-operative ness. Both parties win the conflict by finding creative middle ground that addresses as many needs and possible resulting in generally optimal outcomes but often requires a lot of resources to achieve effectively.
There is an old par bell of two children fighting over an orange. A wise elder encourages compromise by cutting the orange in half and giving each child an equal portion of the orange. The first child removes the skin from the original, tosses it aside, happy and satisfied eating the fruit. The second child removes the skin from the original, tosses the fruit and steeps the zest in their tea, happy and satisfied. That would be a compromising approach, but a true collaborative approach to this conflict would have been both children getting everything they wanted. A full orange's worth of fruit and a full orange's worth of zest. The par bell is weak because you don't want a full orange's worth of zest in your tea but I think you know where I'm coming from.
The modes today will focus on a collaborative approach to drive an optimal outcome. It's not necessarily the case that this approach is always the right choice. It's typically more resource-intensive to implement, but it results in stronger relationships between both parties and greater adherence to outcomes, so you're much more likely to follow through with a shared plan of action if you collaborated towards developing that shared plan of action.
Sometimes lesser conflicts will sort themselves out and can be resolved with outside perspective or input, but more severe conflicts will need to be addressed in a proper manner. As an organisational leader or HR business person, if you're finding the conflicts are not resolving themselves, you may need to intervene. If the workplace is being disrupted, productivity being affected, or threat posed to other employees, you will need to intervene.
If either party requests mediation, you also need to intervene. But whatever the case, you should always acknowledge and make a record of the problem and decide whether or not to intervene, and when you make that decision, there's a number of factors that you can consider. Some of the things I noted before, as well as the number of people involved, the severity, the level of disruption, and the issues that are kind of core to the conflict. And so, when - I'm going to go ahead and skip some elements in my lecture here about bases of power, and let's talk about approaches for mediation.
So, a mediator can take one of four approaches to engaging in conflict mediation. The four approaches are: facilitative, format live ... the mediator provides a light touch, merely acts as a neutral agent to manage the logistics of the mediation. In the formulative approach, the mediator takes a more active role. They agree where the problems are end, and where the problem ends.
They encourage the participants to take the prospect of solutions. A directive approach is one where the mediator takes a very active role, defines the scope of the problem themselves, and describes what kind of solutions might be appropriate and how to select one.
And then finally, the manipulative approach is where the mediator acts as a leader and uses their power to formulate an acceptable agreement and coerce or reward the parties into acceptance. So generally the approach will depend on the specifics, the mediation in question, what possible outcomes could happen without if you take ideally, you take a facilitative approach, but you may be more prescriptive depending on how efficacious it will be without your involvement as a mediator.
You want to engage in me parity tactics and we will talk about the things that you could do in the most robust approach. So in the most robust approach, you don't improvise, you try to be well prepared and well informed. Y
ou will invite both parties, and as party invitation provide the benefits of mediation to both parties, introduce kind of all - introduce yourself as a mediator to all parties with the context provided. You might say, you know, I see myself as an impartial process, or I may have a particular bias, here, but I can look past that.
You might also highlight areas about ... expertise. I don't know much about this particular system but I know about the adjacent system and maybe that can help me better understand the problem. The mediator should consider what individuals from parties should be present for success, so, if you have two different groups that are in conflict with each other, you know, you may want to have a specific representative from each group and make sure that you're using the right representative.
Document the process of preparation, and lay out the rules for engaging mediation. So the mediator may choose to end the mediation without any awareness having done no research in order to be kind of open-minded as possible. Other times, you may kind of choose to do your own research and come into the conflict prepared for mediation.
Typically, in most robust case, you may ask each agent or each party in the mediation to share their understanding of the situation, what requirements they may have for mediation, what questions they have for the other parties - so what they need to know - and what solutions might be acceptable. Oftentimes, you might have to do that under agreement of confidentiality.
Ultimately, the mediators responsible for logistics and should provide the physical meeting space for context. There is a lot of thought that goes into how to prepare a physical meeting space for conflict mediation. But generally, you will want some sort of whiteboard so that you can kind of create and have a shared understanding and do some brainstorming processes. And using a round table is recommended because of the psychological benefit of having kind of everyone in an equal footing and position.
The parties themselves should take steps to prepare. In the simplest form, they should decide what they want to say, so what they want to go into the mediation in saying, what they don't want to say, or don't want to keep to themselves, and what they want to ask so what kind of things they want to know from the party. There is a lot of more complexity you can do.
There is a systematic approach to deal with the people, the problem, the processes, and certainly in highly tense and nation-state negotiations, the conflict mediations, there are many, many steps involved in the process and a whole lot of preparation that goes forward.
I don't think too much of that is going to come into play for most of the folks in this room, but generally mediation itself consists of one or more sessions of dialogue with quite a bit of preparation involved in the most robust case, but chances will be doing a one-off session with some amount of preparation involved ahead of time, mostly by thinking about what are we missing? What do we want to say? What do we want to know from the other party? And what kind of outcome are we looking to drive?
So, as a mediator, once the session begins, it's helpful to restate the ground rules and establish the context that enables everyone to overcome any barriers to healthy communication they have. Take a few steps to cultivate the kind of pragmatism necessary to generate an agreed settlement and to end the conflict. So trying to soft yep the expression of high negative emotions when to be possible but still allow people to express themselves. Emotionally charged can trigger a stress response.
I would also be cautious to control any scope creep in terms of the issues and problems to be negotiated. Keep it focused on the problem at hand and relevant underlining context. We establish some common ground between the groups concerned such as shared principles or goals is helpful, and if needed, you know, and things look like they're not going to work and the mediation won't be successful, feel free to bail and kind of pause the conversation and find a way to adjust the negotiation, the mediation process itself so that constructive talks can resume. So as part of these processes, there is a number of techniques that can be used to better comprehend the cause of conflict.
Essentially once you've created a conflict resolution space, you do three steps. You create a shared pool of understanding by laying out all the information as possible. Then you kind of discuss possible solutions and finally, you create a plate of action for deciding whatever solution is decided upon by both parties.
When it comes to creating that shared pool of meaning and comprehending the conflict, there are a handful of tools that you can use. Three common ones are called ABC - onion, and tree. I will talk about ABC quickly, although my lecture notes will go into all three.
The ABC technique looks at the attitudes, behaviours, and context of the party from the conflict. And basically, the mediator will go on a whiteboard and create triangles for each party or person, put in the behaviours, attitudes, and behaviours and context as they describe it themselves.
You do that for each party, so two parties, you ask each one to put down what have you been engaging in? Why have you been engaging in that? What makes you feel that way? Next, the mediator kind of, of a you do that for both parties, you look for the unstated need for each party - sorry, as you do attitude, behaviour, and context, then you say, okay, what is the unmet need that you have here that underlines all of this? Maybe a need for harmony. Put that in the centre. Then you will do that for both parties. And compare each triangle against the stated perception of each counterparty. Oftentimes, the part of the problem is we come to conclusions about how the other party is feeling, or what they're thinking, or what their motivations are, and the triangle tool can help us see beyond that.
The onion tool is kind of similar, uses concentric rings and looks at instead of ABC, purpose, interest, and needs. But it is the same kind of thing. The idea is to illuminate commonality, difference, and consider how perspectives might be different from reality.
So once you've developed using one of these techniques, or any other kind of approach, simple conversation, if it is sufficiently simple problem, you then focus on ways to get people, generally all of these approaches are intended to get people to shift away from their position, or stated desired outcome, so their actual underlying interests and needs.
It is not always easy, because sometimes people don't know what their interests are. You will need to guide them by asking them questions and using some of the NVC kind of techniques we talked about before. You might ask them: why do you want this exactly? You want to make sure that people stick to the facts and not the emotions. Allow the emotions they have to cause them to draw conclusions but important to let them move from their positions of interests and from their interests to their needs.
Once you have that identified and you have a shared pool of understanding, then you begin to discuss what are the possible solutions. Encourage both parties to come up with creative ideas that will satisfy as 19 of their combined interests as possible. The more options the better.
And at this point, maintain the focus on coming up with options, not evaluating the validity or acceptability of the different options. Keep those steps decoupled. Oftentimes, time can be a challenge here. If you time-box the session, you will want make sure to give enough time, more time than you expect because if people feel rushed, they will often fail to come up with the right kind of creative solutions that are necessary.
So, taking the time to discover all the options openly will produce more solution s, and folks will often have hidden agendas, so push folks to move beyond their hidden agendas and towards the interests of the shared interests of the group itself.
Finally, when you choose the solution, it's important to outline the features and benefits to both parties. Choose a solution that is critical to - when you do choose a solution, it is critical to ensure that folks understand what the next step is, and who is responsible for what next step. Then you document that process, and share that kind of shared plan of on the whiteboard itself. When you have consensus between the group, you can then move forward.
There is a loft value in having that shared future be physically present in the space, effective scroll tool for seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, or perhaps the writing on the wall, right? So when you're developing a plan to resolve the conflict, document the meeting in the minutes and the shared plan of action, share it out afterwards and give folks the opportunity to disagree, or highlight and kind of any misses in that document process, and then develop and follow through with a shared plan of change .
So that is the core of conflict resolution, and a conflict mediation process. Let's go ahead and try a little informal mediation exercise ourselves.
A few things I want to such on quickly before we wrap up. There is a whole lot more that I wanted to get to that I have lecture notes that you all have that unfortunately I'm not going to have time to do. I designed a three-hour workshop thinking it was two. Feel free to look through the note later. Essentially, when it comes to conflict avoidance, early and often communication is key.
When it comes to engineering organisations, there are two big places where conflict can happen. The first one is making technical decisions, particularly around software design. So having a clear software design process is important, and having a clear software design process that documents decisions made, alternatives that were considered, folks now, hey, we thought about using C++ instead of Rust and we decided not to, and we have a decent reason for it. Please stop bringing it up every time you see me, right?
And another area where conflict often comes into play is in delivering critical feedback. Critical feedback is really important. It is a life blood of any successful organisation. And oftentimes companies are deliberately developmental so they want to give you critical feedback, give each other critical feedback which is great because it helps us all get better. Not great because most people are quite poor at providing critical feedback, so I want to give you a few quick tips for this whole lecture series alone you could do on delivering critical feedback certainly.
I will give you a few quick notes. Generally, critical feedback should be delivered privately. Some organisations will encourage people to do it directly between peers, while others expect it to be delivered to an individual's manager who can coalesce and deliver appropriately.
It is also importantly when delivering critical feedback to be specific in personal actionable, and timely. If you're saying, you know, - if a specific feedback is when you do X it has this consequence as opposed, "You were the kind of person who creates these consequence s".
In person is important. In-person feedback says, "You're bad at doing X" where in-personal feedback says, "In this specific case when you tried to do X, it didn't come out quite as you wanted", and actionable means don't tell someone something, some sort of critical feedback they can't do anything about. It is not effective. It's not going to hurt people's feelings and not impact any meaningful change. Unactionable feedback is not well-formed feedback.
Timeliness is also important. You need to be delivering it a reasonable amount of time so it is fresh in the minds of people who have it. Telling people six months later about something they did they don't even remember is not super helpful or actionable. It is important not to use absolutist or judges terms. You might say an alternative approach to doing your problem might be to do Y.
Generally, you want to translate complaints and criticisms into requests with a positive outcome. For example, instead of saying, "You're constantly late", you say you've been late to a few meetings recently, I think making an effort to show up early at least for a little while will let folks now you're well prepared. Don't communicate from an angle of status. "I am this, and I demand that."
If your feedback is not well formed or doesn't take the full set of features into account, communicating from an angle of status will discourage others from pushing back against your feedback which is important because you don't have all the information. You can't possibly have the information and you want to develop a partnership and change.
With that in mind, I would like to go ahead and open the conversation if anybody has anything they they want to share or add, and share any feedback you might have on this workshop. Certainly, I have some notes and takeaways to improve it and love to get your perspective as. If you're curious to learn more about the topic - I will release a blog or two about this topic as well.
Thank you all so much for coming. I hope this was helpful. I've taken your notes. I will polish the lecture notes and pass to Kevin so he can send them out as well. Feel free to reach out to me. I'm on LinkedIn and Twitter if you would like to continue having contact, and being a kind acquaintance of mine. Thank you so much, folks. Have a great one.