Lessons From the Court: Basic Conflict Management
By: Jen O’Meara, Ph.D
I’ve written before about my role at the 3WallBall tournament desk in Vegas. With the 2023 Outdoor World Championships fast approaching, now is a good time to review some basic conflict management techniques. These techniques work equally as well both on and off the court, and both in and out of the office.
Step 1. Find a Private Place to Talk
Moving the individuals from the immediate area into a neutral area is a good first step, particularly if the conflict is occurring in a public space. This reduces the likelihood of distractions and onlookers, and also helps to establish your authority over the situation.
Step 2. Clarify the Source of the Conflict
Finding the source of the conflict can be difficult in some situations, particularly if the conflict is rooted in the past. Two people arguing about whether a specific shot three minutes ago was in or out of bounds is much easier to diagnose than a six-month long dispute over a colleague who never replaces the ketchup in the company fridge. You can bet, however, that surface conflicts will continue to occur until you get to the bottom of the ketchup issue.
Step 3. Listen to What Everyone Has to Say
It is important for you to let each individual speak, in turn and without interruption. A good rule of thumb here is to make the individuals begin sentences with the phrase either “I feel” or “from my perspective.” Another good tactic is to prevent the individuals from referring to each other in their statements. Doing so will eliminate the accusatory tone from the conversation.
For example, consider the following statement: “You know that ball was out of bounds.” Here the speaker is on the offensive, implicitly accusing their opponent of trying to steal an unearned point. I know from experience that this statement is only going to fan the flames of the conflict.
Compare that statement, however, to the following: “From my perspective, the ball was out of bounds.” This statement allows the speaker to convey the same sentiment but in a much less accusatory way. It also introduces the notion of perspective, which means the discussion is now about differing perspectives rather than whether one of the players is cheating.
Likewise, note the difference between “you are cheap and eat all of my ketchup every week” and “I feel taken advantage of when I bring a new bottle of ketchup on Monday and it is empty by Thursday.” The first is accusatory and is not conducive to further discussion; the second forces the speaker to articulate their feelings and what is triggering them, without explicitly implicating the other individual.
Step 4. Come Up with a Solution
The speed of this step depends entirely on the circumstances. Sometimes the solution is as easy as “the referee’s call stands, whether or not you agree with it.” If the situation, on the other hand, requires some investigation, put an interim solution in place until a permanent solution can be worked out. Making sure that each individual understands their role in the solution will help prevent subsequent conflicts over the same issue from flaring up.
Remember: it is important for leaders need to remember to stay calm and impartial during the entire conflict management process. Failure to do so has the potential to make the conflict even worse.
The steps above were adapted from HR Cloud’s 7 Tips on How to Manage and Resolve Conflict in the Workplace
Jen O’Meara is an Associate Professor of Business Communications and a 3-time US Open national racquetball champion.