3 strategies for managing team conflict when emotions are high

written by Erica Quam

When you're a coach, you are a facilitator every single moment. How you handle the unique blend of personalities that make up your team is a lifelong skill you can always continue to learn more about and improve on. That's what makes coaching so dynamic!

1. When your team has a conflict, the first thing to manage is yourself.

You have to stay differentiated as a leader. Even for a few seconds, check in with yourself to become aware of what's going on with you before you delve into the conflict of your group.

  • THOUGHTS: What are you thinking? What story are you making up right now?
  • FEELINGS: What are you feeling? Pick from the 4 primary emotions = mad, sad, glad, or afraid
  • INTENTIONS: What do you want? Get clear on what your true desire is going in.
  • SOMATIC SENSATIONS: What's your body telling you? Heart rate, tingles, flushed, shaky

You can either react to the situation or respond. You react from your own thoughts, feelings, intentions, & sensations. You respond to a situation when you are aware of these things first. 

2. Next, get clear on the behavior specifics you are observing from your team.

You walk into practice and hear one of your players yelling. You see that she's pounding her fist on the table and repeatedly pointing her finger at a few of her teammates. They aren't yelling back at her...in fact, they are looking down and shaking their heads. 

These are behavior specifics. 

You could also make up your own story as you walk up to the scene. Wow - Grace is really pissed. I wonder what the three freshmen are up to that made her so angry.

This is your opinion and your own judgement of what's going on. 

It can be really easy to make an assumption and point the finger at someone. If you find yourself blaming - take a step back and keep the big picture in mind. The more you can stick with observable behavior - the less hooked you are emotionally - the better you will manage the situation. This takes practice!

3. Finally, choose an intervention.

There are lots of different ways you can intervene. Letting the situation play out and not doing anything at all is also an intervention. As a coach, you are in a position of power. You could take the situation and blow it up instead of calm it down.

Step 1. Diffuse the intensity

If emotions are high you want to do what you can to de-escalate. Maybe lead with, "Everyone take a deep breath here." "Hey, let's just pause for a second."

Step 2. Lay out some ground rules

"I'm not sure what's going on here. I sense there's a lot of emotion around it. We're going to talk about it. (Let's them know you're the referee). I want to hear from both sides. (Give them space to vent.) I also want to walk away teammates - so we can get back to working on our goals as a team. (Ultimate goal).

Step 3. Facilitate a debrief

A debrief helps you process and gain insight from an experience, event, or activity. Help your athletes move the events from the "there and then" to the "here and now". Their willingness to participate will depend a lot on what kind of culture your team has already established. 

Some ways to make debriefs more successful is by doing them more frequently. When you debrief low risk activities on a more regular basis, you've laid the groundwork to discuss an emotionally charged situation. 

Here's a simple debrief model:

  • What? (stick with just the facts)
  • So what? (add in thoughts and/or feelings)
  • Now what? (learning that can be applied to future experiences or interactions)

What happened? Your goal as a facilitator is to get people to share a description of the facts and who was involved. Make sure you step in if people try to talk about thoughts and feelings at this stage...this is just the facts.

So What? Now, find out what people think, how they are feeling, and what they've learned. If emotions are still high you may have to give people a couple of turns until everyone feels listened to and heard. Model active listening, "so what I heard you say is that you felt angry...is that right?" 

Now what? Get their perspective now that they've talked through things. What are you willing to change or do differently? What changes would you suggest that would make things better? Where do we go from here? 

I'm sure every coach can look back on situations you've handled well and others that could have gone better.

Which of these steps can you take into the next charged scenario you face?

Manage yourself, be a keen observer, and step in as a leader.