It Doesn’t Always Take Two to Tango: The Case for Conflict Coaching

Conflict Coaching for the Workplace

By Paul Gretton-Watson, Director Converge International

Managing conflict in the workplace

Let’s face it, interpersonal conflict often builds and brews over many weeks, months and sometimes even years. It rarely if ever occurs as a result of a lightning strike moment when one or both parties go from 0 – 10 emotionally.

More often, it is the gradual deterioration in the working relationship, exacerbated by negative events or interpersonal exchanges along the way that has left the working relationship damaged to such a degree that there is little or no trust between the parties, let alone energy to do anything about it.

Compounding this, there is often a deep-seated fear for one or both of the parties associated with the conflict. These fears may be based upon antecedents such as failed attempts in the past to address issues in their working relationship, or perceived power imbalances particularly if there is a concern about punishment or retribution being meted out by the more powerful party. Or it may be anxiety driven by a dynamic reminiscent of a terrible chapter in their past. And so the triggers for fear go on.

Now, add to this that more often than not, one of the parties is more reticent or avoidant of conflict at the best of times and therefore, and not so surprisingly, can’t stomach the thought of directly tackling the conflict with the other person. In short, if any or all of these occur, there’s not much to work with to support a bilateral or joint conflict resolution processes such as a workplace mediation or facilitation.

So, is there a credible Plan B?

Conflict coaching is a potential alternative when and where there are significant barriers or fears preventing a bilateral or multilateral conflict resolution approach. There are different models of conflict coaching being practised around the world right now – reassuringly more similar to each other in terms of their philosophy or approach than not.

Typically, conflict coaching may be used in any of the following dynamics:

  • There is a lack of preparedness by one or more parties to engage in a mediation or facilitated discussion;

  • There is a desire to address a matter with a person to avoid further escalation that is giving rise to conflict and distress;

  • Patterns of conflict may be identified for an individual with multiple parties in the past and they keep getting themselves into the same or similar messes;

  • As a step or prelude to joint mediation, where parties are wanting to become clearer about the respective positions they hold as compared to the other party;

  • An interpersonal dynamic is stuck in a destructive pattern that needs to be addressed;

  • The person wants to have a very difficult but important conversation and maximise the likelihood of that going well; or

  • Any other interpersonal dynamic that is rooted in differing values, wants, motivations or needs between two (or more) people.

Converge International has a number of senior coaches who have specifically trained in a conflict coaching model. Conflict coaching has proven to be a very effective approach that improves the way individuals engage in and manage workplace disputes and conflict. The approach has many parallels with the key elements and steps within a workplace mediation or even executive coaching.

The person being coached is encouraged to:

  • Identify their goals;

  • Develop more effective ways of managing the conflict; and
    Prevent further conflict and improve their skills at managing conflictual dynamics in the future (recognising it is the not the conflict that is the problem but the way that it is managed that is the key to creating a positive shift);

  • Explore different perspectives and possible ways of reaching those goals.

Why coach and not just tell?

It is important to remember that a coaching approach is preferred to an advising approach because it acknowledges the person being coached is in the best position to know what is going on, and what is needed to create a positive shift – sometimes they just don’t know they know. Research has shown that if a coaching approach is taken over an advising or telling approach, individuals have a far higher degree of ownership of the solution and will more quickly integrate the new skills and approach into long-term learning and better management of conflict in the future.

Most people experiencing conflict have been told repeatedly what they should do about the conflict by all manner of well-meaning friends and advisers. But the net result is they’re still stuck – so clearly something different needs to be done.

Conflict coaching is underpinned by two key principles:

  • Self-determination is a fundamental principle for facilitating empowerment, and;
    We all have choices about how we manage conflict.

The approach encourages the person being coached to deeply reflect on their values, needs, trigger-points, and identity (including their conflict management identity), impact of the conflict on themselves, as well as the assumptions or reasoning they might be making in relation to the conflict. Then, they do all of this as if they were the other party with whom they are experiencing the conflict. That is, they get to “walk in the other person’s shoes” in a powerful way. Needless to say, there can at times be some extraordinary “ah-hah” moments working through the conflict at these various levels, honestly and safely with a skilled coach.

So yes, there are conflict resolution options to potentially pursue, even when there is a lack of preparedness by one or more parties to address the conflict directly. Perhaps it is a good time to scan your mental list of simmering or unresolved interpersonal conflict in your workplace – the ship may not yet have sailed, even though joint or bilateral intervention has been ruled out or tried and foundered.

Unresolved conflict in the workplace can present a significant risk to employee wellbeing, productivity and engagement–especially if left unaddressed. Through Conflict Coaching employees can develop the skills, knowledge and competencies to reduce this risk by more effectively resolving or managing disputes or interpersonal conflict. Learn more about Converge International’s Conflict Assist tools and help restore effective team relationships in your workplace. Visit:


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