How to weather conflict with your team

by Erica Quam

Kristin's team was a few weeks into the season. Things were going well so far and yet she sensed an undercurrent of tension after morning practice. She hadn't 'heard' anything negative...she just had a 'sense'.

Then she got a text from her team captain to confirm something was definitely up...thank GOD!

At least she had her guard up before Nell (one of her freshmen) walked into her office and promptly burst into tears.

All teams (and any group) cycle through the stages of group development:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

During the forming stage, your athletes are looking for ways to belong and connect. As a coach, this is when you’ll want to build trust and set boundaries - so people feel safe.

Storming begins when people assert themselves and try to stand out. When it happens, this CAN be great. To become a high performing team and reach your true potential your team needs to storm. Tuckman's theory of team development seems simple enough to comprehend.  It's not always so easy - in practice.

WHY DO TEAMS (AND COACHES) STRUGGLE SO MUCH WITH CONFLICT?

Having people stand out and assert themselves is a vulnerable process. It can be messy! It's easier to collude: to judge, blame, and complain to people who will validate you. It's easier to be passive aggressive instead of dealing with things directly. It's easier to ignore...and hope it will go away.

Conflict can be uncomfortable and chaotic. It involves getting to the root of the unhealthy patterns and dysfunctional roles people play.

For conflict to be resolved, there has to be trust.

Kristin had worked hard to build trust at the beginning of the season. She even talked to her team about the stages of team development at their team retreat earlier that month. She told them things wouldn't always be this fun. 

She assured them - things would get challenging. They would have things come up they'd need to work through - to be as good as she thought they could be.

She asked them how many of them liked dealing with conflict. No one raised their hand. She assured them that when they worked together through the things that would come up, they would be a stronger team.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Kristin asked Nell what happened. She extracted - between Nell's sobs - that somethinghappened in practice this morning with Angie (one of the seniors).

At that point, Angie walked in the door...her face was bright red. She started yelling and pointing her finger at Nell - who immediately shrunk down in her chair, buried her face in her hands, and began sobbing even louder.

Kristin took one deep breath and thought to herself, "Shit. This IS happening. I don't think I've had nearly enough coffee today to deal with this!"

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IN THIS SITUATION?

When conflict comes up, what can you anticipate? Most team problems can be divided into 4 categories: STRUCTURE (are goals and roles clear?), GROUP DYNAMICS (what are our team norms? who is taking charge), INTER-PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS (an issue between two people), or INTRA-PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS (conflict with one person). 

Kristin's guess is that this is an interpersonal conflict - something going on between Nell and Angie.

STEP ONE: Kristin knows she needs to create a space where emotions are diffused. She knows she won't get anywhere with when one person yelling and the other person crying.

“Let's all just take a deep breath here. I see there’s a lot of emotion around this."

They all took a breath (including her). Nell's sobbing slowed down while Angie crossed her arms.

STEP TWO: Kristin decided to set up some ground rules for the conversation.

"I'm not sure exactly what's going on here. I do know, we’re going to talk about it and I’ll be the referee. I’m going to give each of you a chance to talk and I’d like it if you can walk away friends in the end."

Angie began to butt in. Kristin immediately cut her off. 

STEP THREE: As she continued, Kristin asked for permission.

“Nell, I’m going to ask you to go first. Angie, I’m going to ask you to wait. Is that okay, Angie?”

Angie let out an audible sigh, crossed her arms tighter, and blurted out "I guess! I don't think I have a choice."

Kristin continued, "Okay, Nell. What happened?

STEP FOUR: Kristin shifted her focus to Nell. She thought to herself, 'Be an active listener.'

Nell shared what happened in practice yesterday.

Kristin asks, “Nell, it sounds like you’re sad. Is that true?

Nell said, "No. I'm not sad. I'm afraid." 

Kristin asks Nell, "Do you want to tell me more about what you're afraid of?"

Nell responds, "No!"

STEP FIVE: Kristin thinks to herself, "Wow! This is more complicated than I thought." I need to get to the actual problem.

"Okay, Angie. Your turn. What happened?"

Angie confessed she actually hadn't heard what Nell said to her at practice. The message was relayed through one of the sophomores on the team. 

Kristin asks, “Angie, what did you THINK Nell said?” 

Angie responded.

Kristin asks, "Angie, what did you feel when you heard that?"

Angie said, "I was pissed!"

STEP SIX:  Kristin knows that the next step is the crux: Hearts and minds have to soften so that both people are open to change.

Kristin asks Nell, "Nell, is that what you said?"

Nell said, "No! I would never say that about you Angie! You're someone I look up to the most on the team."

It turned out, this was a larger team issue and involved more of the team than just Angie and Nell - who seemed to be friends again after clearing up a miscommunication. Kristin knew she had a few more difficult conversations in her future - and would probably need to have one with the whole team. 

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU'VE REACHED STEP SIX?

Be on the lookout for some specific behaviors...

  • voices get quieter
  • the pace of the conversation slows down
  • you won’t have to referee as much
  • postures change from defensive and closed off to more relaxed and open
  • language changes from abstract and vague to “I-Language” and ownership
  • in larger groups the people with more quiet voices will begin to speak up (because they know it's safe enough now...)

THE KEY: Don't rush through to get to step 6. If you're mediating a conflict between two people, it may take several cycles of venting and checking in to see that the message was received before you actually get to the root of the problem. 

WHAT IF NO ONE'S WILLING TO COMPROMISE?

Persistence of conflict usually means people haven't made adjustments and accepted the losses that come with change.

You have to be the leader and read the situation. The people with the most resistance are more apt to buy-in if you acknowledge the losses AND communicate how giving something up now will help them gain something else later. 

DOES THIS SEEM SCARY, OVERWHELMING, AND COMPLICATED?

Don't worry! That's normal. You'll get much better at managing conflict on your team with practice and experience.

These skills can be developed much faster...if you take time to actually deal with conflicts as they show up on your team and talk with someone regularly - like a coach.

Coaches help you reflect on how you're handling the conflicts that come up on your team and strategies to help you become more effective.

And remember: if you can’t fix the problem you’re working on with your team, you’re probably working on the wrong problem.

What's one thing you've learned through managing conflict on your team? Share it in the comments below.