4 questions to diffuse a tense situation
Thursday, September 20, 2018
When you bring people with various personalities, working styles and backgrounds together, a few tense moments are almost inevitable. It doesn’t seem to matter that your team is exceptionally talented and diligent. Even when you put considerable effort into building relationships, conflict can happen.
The issue could be rooted in a personality difference, varying communication styles, or frayed nerves from a challenging project. Whatever the cause, ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it disappear.
Instead of writing someone off as "difficult to work with," take ownership of the situation and try to meet them halfway. One tactic I’ve found useful in these moments is to ask neutral (read: nonthreatening) questions.
When caught in a tense moment, try one of these questions to diffuse the situation.
Question No. 1: Would you mind giving me an example?
Use this one when you’re not really sure where the other person is coming from on an issue. By asking this question, you’re communicating that you want to understand and need more information in order to do so.
Question No. 2: What I think I heard you say is… Is that correct?
Repeat back what you think the other person said to make sure you heard correctly. This communicates that you were listening and value what the other person has to say. Ask for clarifying information if he/she says that something you repeated back wasn’t accurate.
Question No. 3: What can I do to help?
If you’re depending on this person or her department to complete an important task and it’s just not getting done, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. It’s amazing what this one simple question can do to lessen the tension in the room.
Question No. 4: In a perfect world, what would be the ideal solution?
This gives the other person space to offer ideas, vent a bit, and tell you what he/she would like to see happen next.
As you wrap up one of these difficult conversations, determine whether you need to apologize. If the issue had nothing to do with you but you’re working to bring conflicting team members together, then an apology from you probably isn’t necessary.
However, if the conflict involves you consider whether you should offer an apology. I’ve made plenty of mistakes while managing projects. Thankfully, when I’ve owned up to my mistakes and apologized to those impacted, my team members have been forgiving and willing to give me another chance.
It’s amazing what a simple "I made a mistake and I’m sorry" can do to reduce tension and start building back a damaged relationship.
Part of the role of a project manager is to lead the team and address issues. Yes, you should push the team to improve and hold people accountable to deadlines. However, when there’s a misunderstanding and the moment gets tense asking a few simple questions can make a big difference.
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