Conflict Coaching Practices
Conflict coaching involves using a set of skills & strategies used to support people’s ability to engage in, manage or resolve conflict. It is not only listening but actively questioning, with a practitioner who has spent time looking at some of the key factors that influence conflict- and on that basis, can move from listening to asking what futures people would like to see.
When people get involved in conflict, when positions harden it becomes very hard to move from “I’m right/they are wrong”. Polarised opinions lead to little room to engage in any form of conflict resolution. Part of the work of conflict coaching is to get people to realise their triggers, to examine how they frame things can influence them, the role of culture, power.
A conflict coach can take a third side role and pose questions that get people to think about what matters to them, but also to the other parties. A conflict coach not only listens to what has happened, what is at stake but what is at stake for the other people involved in the conflict. This not only humanises people but gets people to think about what is shared and move towards what people want. A conflict coach can therefore play many roles from the third side- and move between them at ease: provider, teacher, bridge builder, mediator, healer, equalizer etc.
Part of conflict coaching is to use methods from appreciative enquiry. Rather than focus on “why did this happen”, an appreciative enquiry would ask: “What would you have if there was no fighting?” or “What would you like to have instead of the fighting?” A conflict coach tries to move away from solely looking at the past (with hurt, pain) to a positive, achievable future
Conflicts get resolved in the present not in the past and solutions are about creating the future you desire not about changing what has been done by both sides. One of the things that we need to realise is that providing a narrative or story that solely focuses on the past, (on hurt, damage, blame) can keep people stuck in the past, angry and being powerless- valid emotions, but once people become stuck in a story about the past, it limits opportunities for people to move towards a more positive future. A conflict coach needs to move people towards empowerment to realising a more positive future that involves change for both sides.
Key skills of the conflict coach
- Builds trust
- Is confident in their role and articulates clearly what they are trying to do
- Clearly communicates the principles they bring from Alternative Dispute Resolution
- Explains the assumptions taken in a third side role as one trying to understand both sides of the conflict, aiming towards cooperative negotiation and supporting a wise solution that can meet everyone’s needs
How to build your skills as a conflict coach
Conflict coaches firstly build their own understanding of conflict by reflecting on how they have been involved in conflict- “know thyself”- we cannot influence other people if we cannot influence ourselves. On that basis, no one should attempt conflict coaching until they are confident that they have reflected on their own conflicts. This self-reflection essentially allows us to step back from out own conflicts and take a third party role to analyse conflicts that we know only too well.
This discussion could take 10 minutes, or an hour. Set time for this to try and make it as natural as possible. You need your conflict coaching sessions to prepare you for real life situations- where tensions and emotions are more likely to real, raw and still very close. In a real life situation, these steps may need to be repeated, or take place over a number of sessions.
The most challenging aspects of coaching won’t be around getting someone to describe what has happened or what is important to them- this is something that most community development workers have skills and experience of. Where it becomes more challenging is bringing in an ADR Role- not that of advocacy, but of a neutral 3rd party role. This especially becomes problematic when a conflict coach tries to get someone to challenge how they frame conflict and pivot to frame conflict from the other side. This is often very difficult for people as many people fear that seeing things from the other side will dilute or undermine their own position (or that the conflict coach is looking to take the other side).
Practice conflict coaching with a learning partner (friend or colleague)
Step one: Clearly set out what you are trying to achieve. Talk through the process. Remember to ensure that privacy is important, establish ground rules on trust and confidentiality. Remember, think about past conflict may be a trigger an emotional response, so ensure that your learning partner is aware of this and does not bring up an uncomfortable memory. For this practice, as conflict coach you have to assume that you don’t know the details and that you will need to ask questions to find out about the conflict, before you attempt to bring some insight to their dispute
Step two: What you will ask your learning partner to think about a conflict situation. Give them time to think it through, in some detail: what happened, who was involved, what led up to the conflict, how they felt, what was the impact. After an allotted time (say ten minutes), come back to them
Step three: Start as if this was a real conflict coaching session. Agree boundaries and establish ground rules. Introduce the principles of ADR- this is a “no blame/no shame” space
Step four: Begin your enquiry: start by finding out as much as you can about what happened: at first allow the learning partner to tell their story. Establish as much background detail of the incident as possible.
Step five: Once you have a sense of the conflict and the particular incident, now begin to delve deeper. This is where you bring your advanced conflict skills: try and establish what the trigger is. What was it that caused your learning partner to react? You must move from the incident towards what was at stake for them- what was threatened?
Step six: Examine how your learning partner frames this conflict. Begin to challenge if it is one sided- take a third party role and get them to try and frame the dispute from the other protagonist’s side. Get them to think “you said you were under pressure that day, what might have been going on for them that day”. “why do you think they reacted that way” etc. Once you have brought up what emotionally trigger your learning partners’ response, you can begin to examine what might have triggered for the other side. Challenge ideas of intent and assumptions of blame.
Step seven: Begin to move the conversation away from the past and project towards a positive outcome. Appreciative enquiry would move this from “how could you solve this problem” which would focus on the problem (again focussing on the past, hurt, humiliation, negative feelings and possibly loss) towards what envisioning what might be. This gives space to focus on new ideas. Change it towards “how could I make my workplace/home/community a safer place”.
Step eight: Begin to ask them what a really good relationship looks like that they have: What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it look/sound like to others? Get your learning partner to tell you what that
Step nine: Now is the time to ask what is really important in life: What do you really want? In terms of this conflict, how is that conflict stopping you achieve that. Is it possible that the other person also has the same values, desires (safety, professionalism, protection of family etc)
Step ten: The conflict coach (over a session or series of sessions) in a real-life situation can now use this to ask what the protagonist wants. Do they want someone to being mediation? Do they feel there is common ground that can be worked on?
In the practice with your learning partner, use this point to stop and get them to reflect on the process. Has it been helpful? Has their framing shifted on the issue? Would they approach a situation like this differently?
Now get them to think about where questions were challenging. What worked? What didn’t? Take these suggestions on board and use them as part of your self-reflective spaces.