How a scuba diving emergency illustrates key principles of conflict resolution
Twenty-metres down and I feel a tug on my fin… my buddy signals he’s out of air, his eyes wide and face full of fear… as everything slipped into slow-motion, my first thought was clear, ‘How are we going to get the crayfish now?’
This is a story I share on the Communication Leadership training, about a scuba dive trip that went wrong and how it illustrates key principles in conflict resolution.
I’ll save the details of the full story and the relevance of the crayfish for people on the training, but here are a few key principles;
Keep yourself safe: This is perhaps the golden rule of conflict resolution. In the same way I needed to bite down harder on my mouth piece as my panicking buddy tried to rip it out of my mouth, you need to keep your self safe in a conflict scenario.
Direct your energy to where it counts: When people are in conflict, it’s easy to go off on tit-for-tat tangents. Focus instead on getting the practical needs that matter met. A little like directing my spare regulator (mouth piece) towards my buddy’s mouth so he could breathe again.
Stay tuned-in: As I began an emergency assent with my buddy, I maintained eye contact, letting him know I was 100% with him to get through the situation. This is like giving someone your full attention to solve a problem. If your mind is wandering, they will know and that can make things worse.
Control the situation: As we got closer to the surface, I needed to steadily deflate my buoyance jacket, (B.C.D.) to avoid shooting upwards too fast. This is like moving through a conflict resolution process; don’t rush it, make each step count to control the situation to get the best possible outcome.
A slip is not a fall. As we broke the surface, my buddy panicked again. But a slip is not a fall; it didn’t mean we were in for a bad ending. Use what you know to regain traction and reposition the focus where it’s useful. I pushed my buddy away, dived underneath him and levelled him out by pulling down on his shoulders. This calmed him and we were back out of danger.
Call for help. You don’t need to resolve all conflict on your own. Who can help you? Once stable on the surface I gave an emergency signal for the boat to come over, they pulled him on board and took over from there. Sometimes it’s better to step back and ask someone else to step in. They may have the knowledge, process or mana that can help.
These are just some of the key principles that can help when resolving conflict. Others include clarifying techniques to create greater precision in your understanding, building rapport to build trust, leading with generosity even when others show little, and creating a partnership frame that solves problems collaboratively.
As a final note, conflict resolution is seldom sustainable if achieved on a win-lose basis. Win-lose often means the fight is not over. The leadership opportunity is to resolve conflict on a win-win basis – this may require letting go of the ‘ego’, but it values good relationships and recognises that more can be achieved collaboratively.
What are the signals of lack-lustre team performance, and what are the solutions? David Savage shares the questions he looks to get answered when starting to coach a new team.
#1: Commitment: Does everyone in the team want to be in the team?
There’s a difference between being committed to the job for the salary versus a commitment that’s driven by a love for the job. With the latter, you’ll have people who are excited by what they do and seek to be outstanding. Getting this right will mean having a team that strives to meet aspirations versus a team that meets just the minimum requirement.
Solutions: Hire the right people, expect the best, have honest conversations around performance and motivation.
#2: Communication: Where on the spectrum between Combative and Collaborative communication does the team sit?
How a team talks to each other is an indicator of what the team can achieve together. Making the most of the team’s Collective Intelligence depends on how well people are heard and how their ideas are responded to. Shut one person down and you’ve lost the full computing power of their brain and therefore the full benefit of their creativity and expertise.
#3: Cohesive Purpose: How well bonded is the team to its purpose? Is it clear? Is it shared? Is it compelling?
The difference between a team and a group? A group simply has a common interest. A team has a common purpose that it actively works towards achieving. This is a greatest opportunity for a leader to build cohesion within the team. Have a clearly defined purpose for the team, that everyone describes in the same way and links to the contribution that team makes to the bigger picture.
Solution: Have your team collectively define it’s purpose, make sure it outlines the difference your team makes to the people they serve.
#4: Leadership Presence: How does the team’s Manager feature within the team? Does he/she have ‘presence’ when present, and does that enable the team or subdue it?
The team’s leader is the team’s key influencer; Leaders can set the mental and emotional tone for others whenever present. So what effect is that presence having on the team? If a leader is pessimistic a team can struggle to cut through and perform at it’s best . If a leader is solution focused, the team has someone to model, especially through tough times!
Solutions: Model the right behaviours, enable thinking, value everyone and facilitate creativity.
#5: Participation: In team meetings, does everyone participate or is it the same few who do most of the talking?
Some team meetings can turn out to be a conversation between just two or three people, with everyone else hanging back denied airtime. The risk is that time is wasted, people switch off and decisions are driven by a few.
Solution: When you need people’s ideas, take a workshop approach and not an open forum approach. I.e. “We need ideas on X, in pairs lets get as many as possible in five minutes and then we’ll share as a group”.
#6: Fun: How much fun is the team having together?
Fun is an indicator of creative potential. If a team can laugh together, it can create together – creativity in the brain is helped when people are relaxed and comfortable with others around them. A team having fun signals it’s in a ‘toward state’ and primed for creative thinking.
Solution: Recognise fun as a value and value it’s contribution.
#7: Tracking: Does everyone in the team have a high-level overview of who is doing what?
For everyone in the team to intimately know who is working on what and the specific details of their day-to-day activity would create a huge information overload. At the same time, with no visibility of others in the team, there’s no cross-pollination and peer support is at risk.
Solution: Know the basics on a week to week basis: Who has what priority, support needed from the team, recent successes, current challenges
#8: Development: Are people growing in ways meaningful to them through the work they are doing?
More than just a job. As I alluded to in question one, (Does everyone in the team want to be in the team?) – a job is more than a job when there’s a passion for the work. Ideally, theses are the people to populate your team with. But what’s this ‘passion’ thing? I link it strongly to Intrinsic Motivation, a state when a person – through their work – has autonomy, mastery and purpose. Focusing in on mastery, this is when someone is developing skills, knowledge and/or experience that is meaningful to them.
Solution: Ask your people, ‘Where do you want this job to take you and how do you want to develop along the way?’
#9: Celebration: How well does the team celebrate success?
Celebrating successes – a nice-to-do activity or is it essential? I would say it’s the latter. If people work hard and achieve well, then let them know they’ve made a difference. In a team culture, celebrating builds cohesion, it signals the fulfilment of purpose and inspires others.
Solution: Acknowledge others on a regular basis. Make it tangible; what they achieved, the value it added and what is now possible.
#10: Pressure: When the pressure is on, does the team pull together or pull apart?
Possibly the biggest indicator of a team’s ability to perform, is how it performs under pressure. Do people ask for help when they need it? Are people willing to cross-the-floor and help out where needed? When one person can’t deliver, do other parts of the team flex to take the strain? Does creativity increase or does the blame game start?
Solution: Upfront, set the right expectations for when the pressure is on. Build a team where people care for each other and will step-up for each other. Keep it solution focused.