Conflict resolution: A primer

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People are pretty incredible. The open source community is a great example of this: hundreds and thousands of people passionate about building new things, collaborating together, and helping each other succeed. Good people deliver great results, time and time again.

There is though, always going to be conflict. Sometimes people will disagree on ideas, on perspectives, on approaches, or ideologies. Sometimes you can’t point your finger at the source of conflict easily and it seems people just don’t get on.

Conflict doesn’t just happen in open source projects though. It happens at work, in our families, in our groups of friends, and elsewhere. So, when you have two people who rub each other the wrong way, how do you help to resolve it? Today I want to share some things I have learned that might help.

The role of the facilitator

Resolving conflict is fundamentally human challenge. Sure, there are lots of processes, methodologies, and approaches, but you can’t resolve conflict like a choose your own adventure book. It instead involves three primary goals:

  1. Understanding people, how we operate, and how we think
  2. Understanding the motivations and insecurities of the people involved
  3. Building trust and practical remedies that both parties have faith in

At the core of this is building trust. In conflict scenarios paranoia can often play a critical role, so the first step is to provide full assurances that (a) each party can speak to you confidentially, and (b) that you have their best interests at heart.

Accomplishing this requires you to be a great listener and importantly, never bemoan or gossip about the other party behind their backs: to the person you are talking to they may suspect you are complaining about them behind their backs too. So, listen, let them vent, identify and sympathize, but always remain classy and respect their confidence in you.

Your role as a facilitator is to be a trusted confidant to both parties: it is this trust that will help steer them past the impasse they have with each other and to find a resolution.

Isolating the issue

At the core of all conflict is one or more sources. Each source is an event, action, or other interaction that led to the conflict. Conflict is rarely a single incident that causes frustration... it is more commonly lots of tiny frustrations that have been bottled up and have now spurted out.

As such, the first step is for us to understand these different sources. This means having a conversation with each party independently to let them vent. Venting is nature’s high-speed randomized data-dump. While it might sound like rambling, venting is laden with clues as to the sources of the issues.

This first conversation should happen in-person, on the phone, on a video call, or some other high-bandwidth rich medium. It should NOT happen over email, IRC, Slack, etc. When talking to the different parties we need to remove the gap between the brain and the fingers so their thoughts can flow.

This conversation should look a little like this:

  • Start the meeting and sympathize with how tough the conflict must be for the person.
  • Make it clear you are here to listen and understand in confidence what has happened so you can be as helpful as possible. Express how you admire the person and you want to help find a solution to make things better for everyone involved
  • Ask them to start at the beginning and share how they feel this conflict happened. Ask them to talk freely and openly and remind them that everything here is in absolutely confidence.

As they share their account of what happened, ask lots of questions. Ask them to elaborate and expand on these individual incidents. Don’t question or judge them, don’t make them feel like they are on the stand in court, just demonstrate interest in understanding these different incidents fully.

Throughout this meeting, take copious notes. This is really important: we will need them later.

When you have finished the meeting with the first person, have the same meeting with the other person in the conflict. Repeat the process, and take more copious notes.

Now send each party an email thanking them for their time and generosity in sharing, and again reassure them that you are doing your best to help them to resolve this conflict.

Now, grab a coffee, grab your notes, and look for patterns buried in them. You are looking for three types of patterns:

  1. Workflow issues: these are holes in how people work together that when filled in can help resolve the conflict (e.g. access to information, access to resources, processes, etc).
  2. Personal issues: these are the personal characteristics, behaviors, and insecurities in the individual that might play a role (e.g. anxiety, narcissism, etc).
  3. Interpersonal issues: these are characteristics between the two parties that may be playing a role (e.g. language barriers, expectations, cultural backgrounds, etc).

After you have followed this exercise you should have a decent summary of the core driving forces behind much of the conflict. Always remember that the incidents of conflict (e.g. an argument) always have driving forces behind them... we want to identify these in our patterns. This will be the skeleton in which we resolve the conflict.

Engaging around the issues

With these patterns clear, the next step is to coordinate a meeting individually with each party. Again, this should be in-person, on the phone, or on a video call. It is essential that in this call you can continue to demonstrate your humanity and empathy, and we can only do this well when people can hear each other's voices and preferably see each other's faces too.

In this call you should first share some of the common patterns you identified earlier. You should make it clear that these are issues you see on both sides of the conflict. Your goal is that the party you are meeting with can see themselves in the patterns you share and agree with your observations. This will start building acknowledgement of their role in the conflict which is an important step to finding solutions.

Now share with them, very gently, some of the personal observations you identified about them. When I have to share this information I like to present it as: "Look, I really like you, and I think you do amazing work, and as a friend I want to help you be the best you can be, so I wanted to share these observations with love, not criticism, so you have more information to be the best you can be."

As you share these personal observations you should stress that these are perfectly normal attributes in humans and highlight your own flaws to make them feel that they are not being singled out. You should also reassure them that you observed personal elements for the other party too which you will also share with them when you have that meeting.

Now ask each party in these individual meetings if they would be comfortable hopping in a meeting with both parties together that you will coordinate. This is where you will suggest some next steps for solving the conflict. Both parties are likely to agree.

Finding a resolution

You now need to review all the information you have and explore what some practical next steps can be to resolve the conflict. Ideally these steps should be logical enough that both parties will be supportive of them.

This is the trickiest part of the conflict resolution process, but a great opportunity to think creatively about solutions to the items you discovered in the exploratory piece earlier.

As an example, if you identified that the source of the conflict here is that the two parties are not communicating effectively with each other, you could propose a simple way of clarifying goals and expectations more effectively (e.g. writing them down, regular syncs, etc).

If the conflict is instead that one person is being too dominant in decision-making and it is frustrating the other, a simple solution could be to put together a thin process for how decisions are made and reviewed for input and feedback.

In some fairly extreme conflict cases a good solution is to have the two different people participate in different areas of a project and minimize their interaction. This should be a last resort though... you want to avoid creating personality silos.

There is no magic button you can press to come up with these solutions and no book that will tell you what to do. The goal here is propose solutions with clear benefits to everyone involved. Of course, some of your solutions may be more beneficial to one of the party than the other, but en masse you want to feel the overall next steps are supported by both parties.

This is essential. If both parties can’t agree to walk forward in resolving this, there isn’t much you can do. You may get some folks who are so bitter that they are resistant to almost any kind of change or next steps. In these cases I often have a private call and emphasize the importance of putting the past behind us and building a better future.

Some final thoughts

Conflict resolution is difficult and at times emotionally draining work. It can though be tremendously rewarding to help solve these problems.

Like anything, it takes practice. I see every conflict scenario as an opportunity to learn something new and evolve and iterate on my approach to it. Remember though that every situation, person, and conflict is different... you can’t take a cookie cutter to these situations and succeed. You can though evolve and improve your efforts at building trust, identifying the core issues, and finding solutions.

Also remember at every step of the way that you are dealing with people. People are irrational creatures and there may be some times when they snap at you, dig their heels in, and resist help. Always take a calm and measured approach... it always ends up succeeding over the frustrated approach. Sometimes these things take time, but in doing this work you are helping to improve you community, learn some valuable skills, and build great relationships.

As ever, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments. What approaches and methods have you found to be good solutions for solving conflict?

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Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations.

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