At the International Ombuds Association’s international conference, which I attended back in April, one of the speakers, Dr Patricia Robinson, shared a simple model that front-line managers can use to have productive conversations to help their people move towards better working relationships and belonging. The model helps them find out what is important to disputants, calm emotional heat in their teams, and get to the source of conflict.
The first step to catch conflict early is to make disputants feel truly listened to, by listening for WHAT, WHO, HOW and WHY.
Following the speaker’s invitation to spread the model, and because it makes total sense given what I observe in the Ombud’s Office, I’m pleased to share it with you and to illustrate how it works with a practical example.
Here is this useful model transposed to a real-life situation*:
Maria shares an office with Anne. Their desks face each other. Despite Maria’s efforts to cultivate a pleasant work relationship with Anne, Anne does not want to discuss anything with Maria that is not strictly work related. No small talk about kids or holidays. No smile, no coffee, no sharing of jokes. Maria, who is a joyful and very sociable person, is struggling with the situation and opens up about it to her manager, Andrew.
This is how Andrew could make Maria feel that he has really listened to her concerns and that he understands the situation, from her perspective.
Maria: “It can’t go on like this, with Anne opposite me, it feels like I’m facing a wall. No smile, no chatting, although she behaves perfectly normally with other colleagues.”
Andrew: “I see that something is really affecting you. Let me hear more about what the matter is in relation to Anne. What does a typical day in the office look like?”
Maria, prompted – with empathy – to give specific examples, explains.
Andrew: “Let me see if I understood you correctly. Anne stays absorbed in her tasks and doesn’t answer when you say good morning, ask how she is or invite her to go for coffee. You also have the impression that she behaves differently with other people. Is that correct, did I understand you well?”
Maria confirms, feeling she has her manager’s full attention.
Andrew: “Anne has been working here for 10 years and she’s highly appreciated by the team, although, indeed, she’s not a very talkative person. But she is very professional in her work. You joined the team only recently and we all appreciate your friendly, sociable nature. Both you and Anne are working mothers with packed schedules, and you both have a heavy workload, but you are both doing a great job. Do you feel that the relationship is always difficult, or is this happening more at specific times, like the beginning of the week or day?”
Maria – now reminded of the points she has in common with Anne – explains further.
Andrew: “How does this make you feel? Do you take this problem home with you? Does it impact your relationship with the other team members as well? How do you think it may impact Anne?”
Maria – encouraged to share her feelings – thinks for a minute and explains that she feels disappointed, sad and angry at the same time. She feels relieved to express these feelings.
Andrew: “OK, I see. If I understand you well, you’re sad and angry because Anne doesn’t seem to be interested in having a friendly relationship with you as a colleague and you feel rejected, is that right?”
Maria confirm and feels that her feelings have been understood.
Andrew: “What is it that makes you feel rejected and sad? Could it be that a lack of a smile or a sad face is somehow contagious and goes against your nature? What was it like in your previous job? Is it also possible that you’re concerned that Anne may have negative things to say when the extension of your contract is discussed?”
Maria confirms that, indeed, she had a very good working relationship with a colleague in her former job and misses that atmosphere. She’s disappointed that she hasn’t been able to recreate the ambiance she was used to in her new job. She’s also worried that the difficult relationship with Anne may have an impact on her contract length and she feels that this would be unfair.
Andrew: “I understand that you need acceptance and belonging from your team and that companionship with your direct colleagues and warmth in the office are essential to you. Am I right? Thank you for sharing this with me. Let me think about how best to proceed.”
As you can see, the 4W kit has not solved the conflict between Maria and Anne, but Andrew has made Maria feel listened to and understood, and he has also received important information about the root cause of the conflict.
The combination of these two things opens the path to informal dispute resolution. The next step for Andrew is to have the same conversation with Anne.
When supervisees turn to you to share conflictual situations, the first step to a successful resolution is making sure that they feel really listened to. Keep this 4W repair kit in mind, as it will help you take this first step.
* Real names have not been used.
I want to hear from you – feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org with any feedback or suggestions for topics you’d like me to address.
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 Patricia Robinson, Ph.D., Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan