Conflict Resolution for Small Groups

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Published 3/28/2015

Business leaders have long been taught the benefits of cultivating diverse teams made up of individuals with unique backgrounds and perspectives. It has been well documented that diversity breeds creativity and innovation, and diverse teams are usually more productive and more efficient than homogenous teams. However, diverse teams can often experience conflict. In many cases, conflict can be very healthy for a group.

In some cases, however, conflict can impede productivity and decision-making.  In order to ensure that diverging opinions do not become a roadblock for success, leaders should take a creative approach to conflict resolution.

The Devil’s Advocate

The “devil’s advocate,” plays an important role in team decisions. This person helps everyone to look at a problem from a 360-degree perspective, and gives the team an opportunity to develop creative solutions. However, the devil’s advocate can also create conflict among the team, especially if one or two individuals consistently find themselves filling that role.  In order to ensure that group dynamics work for the team rather than against the team, there are some steps that managers can take to help facilitate the communication process.

Put on Your Conflict Resolution Thinking Hats

When it comes to conflict resolution, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Preventing conflict means facilitating meetings that encourage the sharing of ideas and opinions, without letting the conversation derail or regress. Conflict is often a result of individuals rehashing old issues. Keeping everyone forward-focused can keep productivity flowing.  An excellent technique for facilitating healthy group discussion comes from the book Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono.

In the book, de Bono outlines a method for meetings in which managers can lead detailed, effective conversations that ensure all opinions are heard and considered. 

In order to fully understand the process, you must read the book, but the basic premise works like this: The six “hats” that de Bono references represent different ways of thinking that challenge the way we typically approach problems. Because they challenge the brain, each mode of thinking should be tackled for a short, set amount of time.  The phases of the meeting will depend upon which symbolic “hat” the team is wearing. Each hat is represented by a color:

  • The Blue Hat (Managing) – The blue hat sets the direction of the meeting - the subject, tone, and goals of the conversation.
  • The White Hat (Information) – What are the facts of the problem to be examined? What is the hard data?
  • The Red Hat (Emotions) – This is not to mean that emotions should take over the meeting. Rather, the red hat is about looking at potential problems. This is where the devil’s advocate can take center stage.
  • The Black Hat (Discernment) – This is another devil’s advocate hat. During the black hat portion of the meeting, the team should examine the negatives of each potential decision or action.
  • The Yellow Hat (Optimistic) – Now that the team has spent some time looking at the negatives, they should flip their focus to the positives.
  • The Green Hat (Creativity) – This is a lot like brainstorming. All opinions and ideas are explored, and free association thinking is encouraged to come up with a resolution or action plan.

Throughout the course of the meeting, the direction is changed by symbolically switching the color of the hat. Once a “hat” is removed, the team cannot revisit the subject again. For example, once you’ve removed the white informational hat, the team cannot add more data to the conversation.

  This encourages everyone to participate in each area of discussion and prevents the team from regressing back and drudging up issues that have symbolically been put to rest.

The Difficult Balancing Act of Diverging Opinions

While diverging opinions are necessary for creativity and innovation, if one or two team members are constantly taking on the role of devil’s advocate, it can have a negative impact on group dynamics. While the six thinking hat method is not the only way to approach conflict in groups, it is effective and proactive.  It allows everyone to express their opinions and ensures that the group tackles a problem from all sides. At the same time, it keeps the conversation moving forward, with a focus on ultimate resolution.

Beth Armknecht Miller is a Certified Managerial Coach and CEO of Executive Velocity, a top talent and leadership development advisory firm. Her latest book, “Are You Talent Obsessed?: Unlocking the secrets to a workplace team of raving high-performers is available on Amazon.