Imagine there is a process for managers to solve impossible workplace conflicts. Not just any conflicts – but nasty, deeply rooted and long-term conflicts – the kind of conflicts that rob everybody in your workplace of time and emotional energy. Now imagine this process taking less than an hour.

I have facilitated this process seven times in the last few months with 100% success in each case.

In every situation, people driving workplace conflicts made active, adult decisions to manage their behavior:

  • Relationships were healed
  • People grew up
  • Tensions released
  • Productivity increased

The Conversation Map

Sound to good to be true? I was pretty skeptical the first time I heard about it. In my 25 years as an organizational development professional, I’ve seen or heard about a lot of tools to manage conflict. Nothing I’ve encountered approaches the clarity, speed, and effectiveness of this approach.

The process is called the Conversation Map. It was developed by Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker and explained in her book, “It All Starts With YOU: The Power of Pre-emptive Leadership.”

I bumped into the process in a conversation with a work colleague and he explained the process clearly and in less than two minutes.

  • I thought about it.
  • It made complete sense.
  • I was dying to try it out.
  • I bought the book.

It took me a while to get my head around the whole idea. There it was, step-by-step. Were we really going to take on tough conflicts and get lasting results in less than an hour? Was this really possible?

I won’t explain the whole process here. Dr. Whitaker has done that masterfully both in the book and the learning materials.

But I will tell you how the Conversation Map starts and why I believe it works.

The stage is set when a leader makes the decision that enough is enough. He or she comes to the conclusion that conflict in the workplace is not just a personal issue. It’s a performance issue. Leaders understand that conflict kills quality, safety, customer service, and employee morale. Leaders who own those performance outcomes step up to the plate and confront conflict directly.

Once confronted, the leader offers the individuals involved in the conflict a simple choice: work through the Conversation Map with an impartial facilitator or deal with the consequences of disciplinary action based on a performance issue. I haven’t seen anyone hesitate to take the offer of the Conversation Map.

And The Conversation Map Works:

  • It allows people the opportunity to confront issues directly.
  • It sets expectations for immediate and sustainable change.
  • It holds people accountable for their behavior.
  • It provides the structure necessary to drive results.
  • It removes the manager from being the parent in the situation.

I will also tell you that while the process is fast and elegant, it is not easy. Serious and long-term conflicts bring up a lot of strong emotions for people. People were scared, angry, frustrated, and sad when they confronted their conflict. My first few experiences with the Conversation Map included direct confrontations, accusations, tears, and awkward silences.

  • But we stayed with the process.
  • We followed the rules.
  • We weathered the storm.
  • And things got better, always, from that moment forward.
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And Then What Happened?

People stayed on track and actively managed their conflict. In each process, I met with the participants two weeks after conducting the Conversation Map. The purpose of the meeting was not to check in to see if people have followed through on their commitments — that is completely their accountability. We did meet to celebrate success and see if the process needed additional work. In every case, this meeting ended with smiles, sincere appreciation, and lasted no more than 15 minutes.

Managers always had the option of recalling a session if conflict persisted. It never happened.

So what did we learn in our initial seven applications of the Conversation Map?

  • People are remarkably capable and desirous of managing their own conflict and will consistently do so when they have a structured opportunity.
  • A facilitated Conversation Map is a powerful tool. It should be implemented only after the issue of conflict has been raised by the supervisor and the conflicting parties asked to work it out on an informal basis.
  • The Conversation Map does not need to be facilitated. People can be trained in the process and use the map to work on their differences directly. A facilitated process is indicated when the conflict is prolonged, interpersonally complex, or when significant trust issues prevent direct dialogue.
  • When the option of the Conversation Map is presented by the manager, it typically evokes a good deal of attention and, in some cases, anxiety in the participants. This is especially true if the intervention is not known in the organization. We found it useful to conduct the facilitated conversation within one day of the opportunity being shared with the participants. There is no value in having people lose sleep, wondering what is going to happen.
  • One of the most powerful outcomes of a facilitated conversation map is that it removes the manager as a referee. It also means that anything that happens in a Conversation Map session is absolutely confidential and will never be discussed outside the session. That left some managers very curious about the process, but that was a small price to pay for a lasting solution.

DownloadIf you are a leader who experiences destructive conflict in your organization, are you ready to take the situation on directly? If so, download the Conversation Map to begin learning more how to use it.

How have you solved conflicts in your workplace? Leave your questions and comments in the box below.

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Dr. Kirk Hallowell
Kirk is the author of, The Million-Dollar Race: An Insider’s Guide to Winning the Job of Your Dreams, to be published by Greenleaf Book Group the end of 2012. Kirk is President of MatchPoint Learning & Development.
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