Tom and Jerry don’t work well together. Sure, every workplace faces relational difficulties at times. But this has gone beyond cat and mouse games. Their increasingly public tension is dragging the whole team down and disrupting the atmosphere. They simply have to work it out or nothing is going to get done. Conflict resolution is another classic consulting situation in which the presenting problem likely needs reframing, or else it will continue to reoccur.
As we’ve discussed in earlier articles, the majority of generic consulting situations require looking for the underlying dysfunction in the human system as opposed to the surface issue. But in the case of interpersonal conflict, the problem is eminently “human.” So what are some of the ways this common situation can be reframed for new possibilities?
If You Acted On This Definition
Taking the issue at face value, you meet with Tom and Jerry separately to hear their viewpoints, then bring them into the same room and use some mediation process to help them come together. There is sharing of grievances, perhaps some negotiation, and the hope is for the two parties to shake hands and start playing fair again.
Reframing “Conflict Resolution”
Conflict resolution is very valuable; that is not the question. The standard approach may well help in many instances. But there are just as many where the animosity seems insurmountable, and nothing seems to be working. This is where we need a new frame.
The first way to reframe this issue is to be careful to test whether Tom and Jerry want to work it out. Too often, the boss wants a resolution, but the combatants do not.
The simple question is to ask whether each party wants to win or work it out.
If one or both are so entrenched that they just want the other to simply disappear, then don’t move ahead. Conflict resolution strategies depend on a certain level of goodwill. If it does not exist, then surgery may be required.
Secondly, don’t make the mistake of believing that all conflicts are resolvable. They are not, and you lose your credibility, especially in your own eyes, by taking on a task that never had a chance.
Sometimes confronting the players with the belief that you cannot help them raises the stakes and wakes them to the cost of their conflict.
The Third Man
Lastly, consider that what seems to be a problem between two is often a problem among three. The person who asks us to get involved is often a player too. Be open to the possibility of a dysfunctional triangle and try to understand the role of the sponsor of the mediation, who might be unknowingly keeping Tom and Jerry at odds. If this is the case, Tom and Jerry will feel it. Ask them what role your sponsor plays in their relationship and what impact that has.
In summary, to act within this frame:
- Test whether the combatants themselves desire conflict resolution.
- Challenge the assumption that the conflict is in fact resolvable.
- Understand the role of the sponsor of the mediation.
[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, p. 400]