How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace: Interview with Chris Sheesley

How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace: Interview with Chris Sheesley

Conflict and disagreement are inherent parts of human existence. The simple fact is that no matter how congenial and friendly and inclusive your organization is, problems should and will arise. The real question is how we respond to those problems. Maybe an employee chooses to say nothing, hoping the problem will go away, until their anger bottles up and bursts out one day. Then what happens? As an HR manager or the employees’ supervisor, what strategies should you use to resolve the disagreement? How do you foster genuine empathy between employees and encourage either/one of them to offer true, full apologies – and what actually makes an apology true and full?

Chris Sheesley, founder of In-Accord NW and a conflict management professional with over 25 years of experience, joins the podcast to discuss the ins and outs of conflict resolution and recommendations for responding to these all-common issues in the way that benefits everyone involved.


MP3 File Run Time: 23:44

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Brandon: Hey, Brandon here. Thanks for the download today. If you’re not subscribed yet, you can go to iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app and get our weekly episodes as they come out. You can go back and download all the previous episodes. They’re there and they’re free, we’ve released over 95 now.

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Onto today’s show. In this episode, I interview Chris Sheesley, the founder of In-Accord located in Portland, Oregon. Chris is a conflict management professional with over 25 years of full time experience and has a track record of over 1700 mediation cases. He also has amassed over 5,000 hours of experience teaching dispute resolution and related skills grounded in his real world experience. I think you’re really going to love what Chris has to say about managing conflict in the workplace. Enjoy the conversation!

Brandon: Hey Chris. It’s great to have you on the podcast, welcome.

Chris: Oh, Brandon, thank you! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.

Brandon: So you’re a professional mediator and you’ve worked with, I imagine, all sorts of people dealing with varying reasons for having conflicts. I really wanted to ask you this big, overarching question: how and why do conflicts usually start in the workplace? You work with a lot of people, I imagine you have a nice sampling of reasons why they start in the first place.

Chris: Well, I certainly get the worst conflicts that organizations produce. There’s a whole range, of course, on the types of issues that finally prompt folks to give me a call. I think some of the core recurring themes I see in the work I do is really about personalities and work styles and just people’s ability and capacity to get together and work through issues.

Most of the time, most colleagues are able to work through things just because they have a good relationship or good rapport, but there are those certain types of working relationships that go awry for whatever reason and the trust isn’t there, so they need some extra help to work through their concerns.

Brandon: Do you feel like there’s instances that happen that cause a big blow-up or is it just over time, maybe an interpersonal conflict just builds and builds until it becomes too much to where they just can’t really work on it and they need somebody like you?

Chris: That’s a great question. It’s really both. Part of your question was, Is there an incident? The other, Is it building? Really, it’s kind of inverted. It’s usually building, there’s this loss of rapport, loss of trust. The styles are different and people have different expectations and they violate each other’s expectations, etc. That’s kind of the backdrop.

Then there’s almost always an incident. I even put that on the agenda in most of my mediation sessions in capital letters – THE INCIDENT! It can be as kind of low-grade as a dirty look at a staff meeting that finally sends people off the rails, or I’ve had cell phones thrown across the room.

Brandon: Oh my goodness!

Chris: I mean that’s not in my sessions! But the kinds of situations that led to me being called in. There’s almost always some lynchpin moment where things go really off the rails for people and they finally call me.

Brandon: Yeah, and you said finally call you. You obviously deal with the worst of the worst by the time they call you. When should somebody actually bring in somebody like you? I imagine that there are so many things that have probably happened before you even step into the picture, so I’m kind of curious – what happens from the first incident all the way to the point where you actually step into the picture?

Chris: Oh, yeah, that’s a great question, too. For some reason, an avocado came to mind as you were asking that! You know how you bring home the avocado and it’s still too hard. It’s not quite ripe. But two days later, it’s so ripe that it’s kind of brown?

Brandon: Yeah.

Chris: It’s almost like that with conflict. There’s kind of this moment where it’s underripe and you can’t really intervene yet because people aren’t motivated and things aren’t broken enough, if you will. So there are those situations that are not quite ripe or ready for mediation or outside help.

But then there are other situations that are just so far gone and, frankly, my response sometimes when I get to pick up the phone is internally – I’m not actually saying this out loud but – hey, call me six months ago. The conflict is just too broken. The relationships are too far gone at that point.

Brandon: And they probably don’t even realize it, that it’s too far gone. But obviously something is on the line where they need to fix it. By the time you’re in, what’s usually on the line? Is it relationships? Is it money? Is it time? What’s at stake?

Chris: Well, I think the reason I have that reaction is – and my life’s mission really is to help people be more constructive in dealing with conflict and to resolve problems in a way that preserves relationships and gets work done and helps people be productive and that’s my whole life’s goal with my work. So it’s discouraging sometimes when I get the call and they’ve kind of done all these other processes that are more adversarial. They’ve done formal investigations or they’ve had attorneys come in. In those cases, they’ve done so much and there has been so much churn that people aren’t really ready to take a step back and say, oh, well now let’s talk and try to resolve this through dialogue and negotiation. It’s really too late. That’s what I’m referring to when I say that it’s overripe.

Brandon: It almost seems like you should come in before an investigation would probably have, unless there’s like a huge incident where there are legal issues at play. But it seems like bringing in a mediator, that would be one of the first steps, wouldn’t it?

Chris: Well, yeah, you’re speaking my language here and that’s really my ideal situation, Brandon, is where people do come in or contact me earlier than later because once there’s this erosion of trust and people have been through a whole kind of investigative or an adversarial process, they’re not really ready to then step back and start having a civil conversation and a constructive negotiation about it. Earlier is better.

how to resolve conflict in the workplace Brandon: I actually read a couple of your articles and I thought there was a really nice point you made in one of the articles and it was really talking about how conflicts often start from just a disagreement. You mentioned that when you’re facing the disagreement, you should try to solve it with a handshake instead of a fist. I thought that was a nice point. Maybe give an example of what you mean by that.

Chris: People are so entrenched and by the time the conflict has kind of evolved and grown over time, there’s a real tendency for always seeing the other person through this kind of filter of negativity. I mean it’s almost comic sometimes. People will say, Oh, well they said hello to me yesterday and I just figured they were trying to get something from me. It deteriorates to that point where people can’t even do benign things and say benign things to each other without it being misinterpreted by the other side.

Anyway, I kind of get the mental image of people with their dukes up. They’re protecting themselves and their fists are close to their face. I think the job of good conflict resolution is to help people just put their fist down a little bit to allow something from the other side to come across.

Brandon: I imagine it has something to do with empathy a little bit. Like just seeking to understand the other side first before you put up the defenses.

Chris: Yeah, that’s the ideal, although that’s asking a lot of people when you’ve been through this whole cycle of conflict and your archenemy is sitting there across the table from you. So I don’t really start with helping them empathize early. I start with helping them share their own story and their own pain and only once they’ve done that, then they can get to a point where they can start to hear the other person’s stuff too.

Brandon: By the time you come in, do people really see it as like this is my archenemy, this is my adversarial – is that really how people are thinking?

Chris: Well, I’m overstating some of this for effect, to kind of underscore the point. I mean most of the time it’s certainly not so egregious that it’s archenemies and that kind of the language of conflict. But I’m just trying to underscore some of the points here.

Brandon: When conflict arises and you’re sort of like in a group setting, you’re part of a team, and you just witness this ongoing conflict between maybe a couple of people, what’s something they can do? If they’re just a fly on the wall, seeing all of this unfold, it just seems like it would be an awkward situation. Should they do anything about it?

Chris: That’s an interesting question about the role others can play and I think, certainly, leadership has a role to play in the face of conflict and I think it’s good management to notice and intervene to the extent you can, to try to work out some of those issues that people are having with each other. And colleagues or co-workers can certainly have an influence too.

Your question is kind of a microcosm of everything I do as a mediator to try to help people work through issues. So it’s kind of an innocuous question, but there’s a long answer to it if I were to go into all the details and things that you can do to help other people resolve their conflicts.

Brandon: If people are trying to resolve their own conflict, what’s something bold that they can do to really try to get to an acceptance between both parties?

Chris: That’s one of the concepts that I try to share with folks is this idea of when the conflict is so far evolved and the kinds of escalated things that we’ve been talking about, when you get to that point, you really do need to take a bold move as you said. So saying something that’s really an offer that’s going to be meaningful to the other side. I encourage people to, instead of just complaining about what the other person is doing, figure out how to talk about what they want the other person to do instead. It’s a subtle distinction, but instead of saying what you don’t like or what you don’t think they should be doing, think about what you do want them to do instead. Then, figure out how you can help them say yes to what you’re asking of them.

That anticipates what you think they need from you or what they’re even saying they need from you. It’s really this quid pro quo of negotiation, at its core. That’s all I do is help people negotiate. I will give you this if you give me that. People can be reminded of that and it can be really constructive in the conflict resolution process.

Brandon: There is this concept of active listening where you’re really listening to what somebody is saying and then you’re kind of regurgitating what they said to show that you’re understanding their point of view. Does that work in conflict resolution?

Chris: I appreciate your skepticism, I think I should start off by saying I kind of share that skepticism, too, that people kind of do this rote learning. They learn about something and then they just kind of regurgitate that technique. In my experience, what really matters with anything is authenticity and genuine curiosity.

If you really don’t want to hear the answer, then don’t ask the question. But you can be very effective in conflict resolution if you just try to be curious. That’s something that’s not all that hard to do, I find, that helps people tap into their real gut feeling about the other person. They really don’t know why the other person is doing the things they do. They really are baffled and so it’s that kind of bafflement or curiosity that I encourage my clients to tap into and then ask the question based on that. Like, you had such a strong reaction when I said X and I’m not sure I understand where that came from. Help me understand why you had that reaction. That’s vastly different than hey, you’re a jerk. The way you responded was totally offensive and I’m frustrated with you. See the distinction, of course, between those two approaches.

Brandon: Is there a typical type of person that when it gets to the point where they need to bring you in? Do you see the same type of person on both sides where they’re sticking to their ground, they’re sort of the authoritarian, dictator type of person where they started the conflict but they’re just adding the fuel to the fire? Or is there some other type of people, like passive people, and they’re not helping resolve the conflict because they can’t make decisions? I’m just curious, what kind of people are you seeing when it gets to that level?

Chris: Well, it’s a fair question, but I would like to highlight that we all have conflicts in our lives all the time. It’s a really natural, normal part of human existence and of course we all know that if there’s no conflict in an organization, then there’s probably not much going on in the organization.

Brandon: Yeah, I agree with that.

Chris: Yeah. So in terms of the clients that I work with, I wouldn’t say there’s a typical kind of person, it’s really just a dynamic. It’s almost a didactic process between the two sides that has evolved to a point where it’s not easy for them to resolve anymore. I think we ought to be honest by highlighting that we all have those kinds of relationships that have gone off the rails in our work life or in our personal life. So I don’t really blame the client, it’s just the dynamic of conflict and it can be difficult for anybody.

Brandon: Yeah. It gets to a point where it’s too far gone and people probably get emotional about it and that’s where you really come in.

You mentioned that without conflict, then there’s probably not much going on. I agree with that. But what does healthy conflict look like? Is it just where it’s – there’s conflict but you solve it pretty fast? You seek to understand a little bit more? What does that look like?

Chris: I like the term healthy conflict. I have a training module called Constructive Conflict, it’s really the same concept, which is just that you can have disagreements, you can have different objectives, you can have different styles. That can be healthy in the sense of diversity and different points of view and that’s useful. That’s good for an organization to tap into those different approaches and attitudes that people can bring, because of course the opposite is if everybody is thinking the same, you have groupthink and you’re not really making much progress. I really think it’s important to have healthy conflict in the sense of being able to keep the relationship intact as you work through the issues on the table.

Brandon: Let’s say I found myself in a really nasty situation where I made a giant mistake, whether it’s a blow-up or just a mistake that impacted other people, and I knew in my heart that I had a wrong that I needed to make right through like an apology. What’s the right way to do an apology?

Chris: I think of several different skills to get you there or steps to get you there. The first one is to really hear the other person’s hurt, to understand the impact what you did or what you said had on them and to not just try to gloss over it. I think we’re uncomfortable when we mess up like you’re describing, and so we want to just make it right.

I’ve had clients sit down with the other side and say, Hey, before we start, I just want to tell you how sorry I am. But that often falls flat because the person across the table who’s receiving this didn’t get a chance to tell their story, to show how they were hurt.

So the first step is to kind of hold back and to just find out how the other person felt. What were the impacts? Back to your active listening stuff. So start there, and then the next step is to apologize for what you did rather than how the other person reacted. We all know these kind of weak apologies that are like I’m sorry you felt blah, blah when I blah, blah, blah. That’s just so beating around the bush. What you really need to do is figure out what you did that was wrong and what impact did it have on the other person and apologize for that.

Then the last thing is to apologize without expecting them to do anything in return. So if you’re going to apologize, don’t apologize because you want something in exchange for that. Apologize because you messed up and did something wrong.

I will add one little footnote here. If it’s worth doing all of this, if there’s a relationship that’s important enough to apologize to the other person about something you did, then you should assume that they’re going to forgive you.

Brandon: That’s a really good point. When conflict is rising to a point or is escalating to a point where others start to take notice, what can HR managers or even direct managers of these people, what could they do to step in and not make it super awkward to try to fix the situation? What kind of assistance can they provide?

Chris: One of the things they can do is to try to figure out what people want, what the issue is, and to try to understand some of the background. I think it’s always very easy to see on the surface what they’re fighting about.

Maybe they’re fighting about, to make it super simplistic, the noise from the other person’s cubicle or they talk too loud on the phone or something like that. But what’s animating that upset, why this person A feels so strongly about it? I think a good manager intervening in those kinds of situations can explore. You’re really upset about this issue. What’s that about? Why do you feel so strongly about it? What’s it preventing you from doing? How is it getting in your way? How is it affecting your productivity?

So to ask those kinds of questions that go beyond the surface level and then underneath the surface, you can often find some commonalities and use that as leverage to get both people working together instead of against each other.

Brandon: The examples you gave, like being too noisy at a desk or something like that, do you feel like when a conflict is sort of arising, it’s in a passive-aggressive way or it’s not necessarily direct? Like the person is not going directly to the person and said, Hey look, turn down your radio. It’s way too loud. I can’t work. Or are they’re going around them to like the manager or saying things passive-aggressively? I’m just curious how people typically handle that.

Chris: Yeah, I’m afraid you’re right. I’m often astonished how people will either do the A or B scenarios you laid out there. One is, they won’t make any noise at all about their upset. They won’t raise the issue at all until it’s an explosive comment about it. Like, I’ve been putting up with you for six months! I want you to stop making all that noise over there in your cubicle. And the other person is literally flabbergasted, had no idea it was an issue and is just stunned. I think many people have that tendency to kind of bottle it up and then explode which is of course not productive at all.

Then the other one that you kind of built into your question was about going to other people and that’s the other way people often react to something they don’t like is they talk to people that they do like. They talk to their friends that are co-workers, they talk to their manager, they talk to others. Everybody but the person that actually is the source of their concern, which of course is a very roundabout way of dealing with things and not all that productive.

Brandon: Chris, this has been fun. Most of the people who listen to this podcast tend to be HR professionals. Is there anything that you would want to tell them just to look for or a strategy to use? This has been super helpful and I don’t want to give away too much of what you do training-wise. But anything else, any nuggets you could give HR professionals?

Chris: I think one of the things that I would just share in closing is a specific technique to deal with a conflict situation, if you’re in the room. I think most people are comfortable kind of coaching individuals through a conflict situation, but when you really have both people in the room simultaneously and you’re trying to work though those real time arguments and conflicts between people, that can be really uncomfortable.

Brandon: Yeah.

Chris: So one of the techniques I would encourage, when you’re in that predicament, is to help people try to figure out what other explanations there are for each other’s behavior. Because we always fill in the blank, we always think we know why the other person did A or B or C. The only person who really knows what they were doing and what their intention was is the person that did that. I think it’s a very useful third party role to figure out how they’re interpreting each other and what the actor’s real intentions were. That can be very powerful.

Brandon: To pull a thread on that a little bit, if an HR professional or a manager is seeing this unfold, do you take them aside separately and really get to the root of the problem? Do you bring them together? How does that work?

Chris: In my work, it’s always two steps. It’s always the individual work to see if they’re good candidates, if the case is ripe enough, if it’s a situation that can be worked on or if it’s too far gone. Individual work is really important plus there’s just building rapport and finding out the story and all those things.

But I’m always building up to the point where I would like to bring them together, because it’s very inefficient ultimately for me or a manager, an HR professional, to kind of be in the middle and do the kind of Henry Kissinger back and forth thing of carrying information and proposals and ideas back and forth.

The best people to resolve the conflict are the people that have the conflict and that’s a big leap of faith for a lot of HR people, in my experience training and working with HR folks. With these really difficult employees that are having trouble, you can get them to work out their own conflict and that’s kind of the leap of faith I ask people to make is that they can and people do all the time. I encourage people to give that a shot.

Brandon: Well said, Chris. What’s your website address to drive some of the listeners to your website? Also you’re pretty active in the Portland area. Anything you’re up to with events or speaking? Where can people find more about what you’re doing?

Chris: Oh, sure. So the website is InAccordNW.com and as far as activities, primarily I’m an in-house trainer so I don’t have much public seating for my trainings. But anybody who wants to can go to the website, sign up for our newsletter, and stay in touch with things we’re up to.

Brandon: Fantastic. Chris Sheesley, thank you for joining the podcast. It has been a lot of fun. Appreciate it.

Chris: Thank you, Brandon. I appreciate it too!

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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