Meeting Room Confrontations : How to de-escalate and get your meeting back on track
Conflict in business is inevitable and unavoidable. A consensus is a semi-regular event at best, and baseline agreement can at times be hard to come by. That’s not all bad news, though. Many conflicts can be beneficial. Conflict is inherent in any kind of business negotiation. Conflict helps illuminate differences of perspectives and facilitate the sharing of new ideas. More importantly, conflict helps weed out bad ideas and cultivate more successful ones.
But conflict can shut down progress just as fast as it can facilitate it.
Problems arise when conflict escalates into a mean-spirited confrontation between two or more parties. These confrontations can take a number of forms. Sometimes it’s shouting. In some cases, it may be a quieter tension punctuated by unprofessional verbal barbs.
Whatever the case, confrontations that happen inside a meeting room can be disastrous for the morale of everyone in attendance, and can grind a productive meeting to a halt. Worse yet, the unprepared moderator may quickly find themself incapable of resolving the conflict or mitigating the damage when taken by surprise.
Rather than let tempers flare and egos clash unchecked, you can help reduce tensions and minimize agitation. Here, we’ll discuss common sources of conflict, how to anticipate a developing confrontation, and how to go about de-escalating a confrontation in progress.
Causes of Conflict
Potential points of conflict between people are nearly limitless. The causes of those conflicts, however, usually stem from just a handful of reasons. The two most common causes are professional differences and power struggles.
Conflicts that arise from professional differences are generally typified by polite disagreement. These are disagreements about what method/idea/way/timing/etc. is best for a team or company. In other words, these conflicts are more about what is right than who is right.
Because these kinds of conflicts are more focused on problems than people, they tend to be productive conflicts that resolve once a clear course of action is decided upon. Often, professional differences will result in discovering more effective methods and solutions, where quiet agreement and acceptance might allow bad ideas to be put into production without any resistance.
The key to ensuring that these conflicts remain productive and helpful is making sure they remain civil and don’t develop into power struggles.
Power struggles are very different from professional differences, though some of the former begin as the latter. They have more to do with how people feel about each other than how they feel about ideas being expressed. Where professional differences focus on the “what,” power struggles focus on the “who.” They often result from an individual feeling threatened or believing that something valuable to them is on the line.
They can come in a number of forms, depending on what sparked the conflict. A power struggle can be caused by a grudge that one or both individuals have against the other. In can stem from dislike aimed at an individual, or at a group they’re associated with (such as race, gender, and so forth). It can even, as mentioned above, be the result of professional differences that got out of hand.
One thing all power struggles have in common, however, is the power involved. All power struggles are about either maintaining power over an individual or group, or about refuting power that’s being exercised over them. Because of this, they tend to be more emotionally driven, and thus more likely to escalate.
A Note About Power Disparity
Managers and supervisors throwing their weight around is an example of a specific kind of power struggle. These are special cases because, unlike power struggles between coworkers who are on equal footing, the positional power of a supervisor gives them the ability to threaten and bully others with relative impunity.
Often, these conflicts arise because of an internal disparity between the manager’s positional power, and their personal power. Their positional power gives them the ability to incentivize and motivate employees with rewards and punishments. Frequently, however, they lack the personal power that inspires willing cooperation without a need for either the “carrot” or the “stick.”
While these power struggles escalate less frequently (as employees fear being fired), they tend to be more damaging to the team as a whole, as egotistical managers tend to undermine their own authority and create an adversarial atmosphere between themselves and all who must work under them.
Professional differences don’t tend to develop into conflict until the parties involved come across a point of contention, and they tend to resolve once a solution is determined. Power struggles, however, have more of a tendency to develop over time, simmering near a boil, waiting for a point of contention to push them over the edge.
If you’re aware of warring personalities or individuals with a history of antagonizing each other, then anticipating conflict on their parts is a key part of mitigating the damage of an escalating conflict. Unfortunately, you won’t always have advance warning, and you will sometimes have to identify a confrontation as it’s coming to a head. The three kinds of signs you’re most likely to notice are body language, social cues, and verbal cues.
Body language includes a full range of movements, from shifts in posture to facial expressions and more. Because humans are so tuned into body language, combative body language can often feel much more threatening than anything verbal.
Body movements may be easier to detect, as they’re a little more obvious than a facial expression. Signs of discontent and rising anger in body language include shifting of weight, crossing arms, clenching fists, pointing fingers, and facing away from another individual who is speaking. The problem with body movements is that they’re not always a clear indication of anger, i.e. it’s possible to get a false positive with body movements.
Facial expressions are more indicative of actual anger but require more scrutiny to detect. Signs of rising frustration include glares, staring, looks of disagreement (such as shaking of the head), a flushed or pale face, sweating, and so forth.
Verbal and vocal cues tend to take the form of aggressive dialogue, such as:
- Ad hominem arguments and derisive comments
- Dismissive language demonstrating a disregard for others’ opinions
- Gross generalizations (using words like “always” or “never”)
- Abusing the word “you”
- Severe, biting sarcasm
- Raising of the voice
While any of these verbal cues individually might not necessarily indicate an upcoming confrontation, the aggregation of multiple cues points to things beginning to boil over.
There aren’t many social cues that a confrontation is forthcoming, but there is one in particular that deserves attention if you see it. Sidebar conversations (whether whispers or passed notes), in addition to being impolite distractions, are often a sign that an individual is trying to gather support from peers to prepare for a confrontation.
If you notice a sidebar conversation, watch the participants for verbal or physical cues to determine if a confrontation is imminent.
Tactics for De-Escalation
While not every confrontation will have a smooth or peaceful resolution, you can significantly reduce the damage done with some proper mediation. If you notice a conflict escalating to a full confrontation, or if a confrontation has already erupted, you’ll need to regain control of the situation in order to de-escalate. This happens in three steps: interruption, stabilization, and remediation.
Step 1: Interruption
Your first objective is to bring ongoing escalation to a halt. As you’re working to drain the tension and aggression from the situation, you’ll need to temporarily redirect the attention to yourself, so that you can further redirect focus from people to problems.
You have two primary tools in your toolbox to achieve this. The first is inquiry. By asking questions that force the parties to move from argumentation to explanation, you put them off-balance and force them to think. This requires asking the right questions, however, as the participants will still want to focus on their opponent at this stage.
To achieve the desired effect, you’ll need to ask specific questions regarding the source of the conflict (preferably the business issue, rather than the interpersonal one). Similarly, you can ask each party to explain their position in greater detail, steering them away from “people,” and towards “problems.”
Either way, you’ll want to interrupt again any time the conversation begins turning back towards confrontation. You’ll also want to interject and reclaim control of the conversation should one party attempt to interrupt the other and restart the confrontation.
Once you’ve reclaimed your position as the director of the conversation, you’ll want to work on depersonalization. This means separating and distancing the person they’re engaging in conflict from the idea that the conflict is about. This serves three purposes: it helps you to steer the conversation, it redirects attention and aggression, and it also begins the process of removing a sense of risk, which is a critical part of the next step.
Step 2: Stabilization
At this point, the conflicting parties have (hopefully) ceded control of the conversation back to you, but they’re likely still one step away from restarting the confrontation. Your objective now is to ease the tension and remove the risk and threat that each poses to the other. This happens in two parts: reducing threats and re-establishing communication.
With threat reduction, your goal is to remind everyone they’re on the same team and working toward the same goals. In a majority of cases, participants in a confrontation believe that their opponents are a threat to them, something they value, or some goal they are trying to achieve.
As a mediator, it’s your job to help them see that, as members of the same organization, the success of the team benefits everyone. Try to help them realize there’s a significant limitation to the damage their opponent can do to them if they even intend harm (in most cases they don’t). In the event that harm is intended, you may need to focus on remediation (more on that below).
As threat levels and levels of aggression begin to decrease, you can then turn your efforts toward re-establishing communication, this time with boundaries that promote fairness and understanding. If you were able to intercept escalating conflict early enough, you may be able to continue discussion unhindered and unchanged. Often, however, you’ll have to implement some rules to ensure things remain civil.
First and foremost, you’ll want to restrict the conflicting parties from talking over each other. If you must go as far as requiring participants to raise their hands to speak, do so. It’s better to resort to formality than to allow the conversation to dissolve into shouting.
Likewise, you’ll want to help steer the conversation toward seeking common ground and fostering mutual understanding. Encourage the asking of questions when clarification is needed. Similarly, you can have participants repeat back to the speaker in their own words what was said, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
In the event that issues persist, you may need to adjourn the meeting and move straight to remediation.
Step 3: Remediation
If the confrontation lingers even after the meeting has ended, it may require some effort to resolve the matter personally with the parties involved. Depending on your position and how it relates to the parties involved, the next step may or may not be your responsibility. If it’s not, refer the problem to HR, and have it handled by those who are authorized to mediate workplace conflicts.
If you happen to be the first point of contact for these individuals, then you may be required to help sort out the difficulty between the two parties. This is where remediation comes in. In these private discussions, you’ll speak with the participants of the confrontation to try to discover and resolve the source of the conflict.
You’ll likely want to start by speaking with each party separately at first. Ask some polite but probing questions to determine what it is about the other party that makes them feel threatened or upsets them. Their issue with the other party may vary, as mentioned above. It may be a grudge they have against the individual personally, due to previous interactions, or may be cultural biases and prejudices. It may be that something about the individual makes them feel threatened.
Whatever the cause, try to assuage their fears, while still giving weight to any legitimate concerns (such as the feeling that they’ve been harassed). Anything of a serious nature should be reported to HR before any further action is taken. Either way, you’ll want to get the other side of the story from the other individual, hearing them out as fairly as you did with the previous individual.
If it’s a more minor problem, or if it’s a problem you’re authorized to handle, bring the two parties together at this point to discuss things and settle the conflict. Establish rules for fair communication and have each party take turns speaking and listening, ensuring that everyone understands the other’s point of view. If a level of respect and understanding can be achieved, then the larger group can reconvene and the meeting can continue.
If the conflict persists despite your efforts to mediate, more drastic actions may be necessary, though advice on that matter is beyond the scope of this article.
Key Tactics to Remember
In addition to the strategies listed above, here are some important tips to remember when trying to mediate a meeting room discussion:
- It’s important that the moderator maintains control of the discussion at all times to keep conflict from taking over. Don’t allow an individual to hijack the conversation by interrupting you or another individual, as this can dissolve into a confrontation quickly.
- Provide an opportunity for all involved parties to voice their ideas and their concerns. Any failure to do so will only stoke the fires of conflict.
- If you have reason to believe that a meeting will invite conflict (e.g. the meeting will discuss ideas proposed by two individuals who are frequently in conflict with each other), set ground rules for the meeting and explain them to all in attendance, such as requiring speakers to raise their hands prior to speaking
As in many aspects of business, preparation is key to keeping order during the meeting. The better prepared you are for confrontation, the more smoothly you will be able to de-escalate it.
Not every meeting runs smoothly, but things can run a lot smoother if you prepare and work to minimize conflict. Your efforts will go a long way toward keeping the peace, and even if a confrontation does erupt, a cool head can help mitigate the damage that’s done.
It also helps to have a productive and prepared space for a meeting, and that’s what Davinci can provide. We can set you up with everything you need for a successful meeting. Contact us today to schedule a meeting room at a location near you.