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Resolve conflict within a meeting or workshop by understanding, clarifying, and confirming the purpose of the decision being discussed. Effective conflict resolution depends on shared purpose. Competing purposes will lead to competing solutions.

There is no instructional class in the world that will teach you how to facilitate a resolution to all meeting conflict. Sometimes, people or parties refuse to agree simply because they do not like each other. Fortunately you can rely on a method that helps manage meeting conflict and secure consensus that is repeatable and effective. When an appeal to common purpose fails, combine active listening with extensive challenges to guide the discussion. Then, appeal to the objectives supported by the decision, such as the project, program, business, unit, or enterprise objectives. Finally, document the impasse and escalate. Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.

4 Steps to Conflict Resolution: Purpose, Active Listening, Alignment, and Escalation

Four Steps to Conflict Resolution

I.    Confirm Purpose

One burden on you, the facilitator, demands building consensus around the purpose of the decision and what it supports. You cannot afford to have a moving target if you want to build consensus. Make the group’s integrated purpose clear and visible. Document and display the purpose for all to confirm. Use your Purpose Tool as a quick and effective means of building consensual purpose, in writing, with instantaneous visual feedback for all of your participants.

II.   Active Listening

Nearly all office professionals understand the concept of active listening, distinguished from passive listening because it demands that the listener provide reflection and confirmation of what the speaker said. Our own experience has shown that it is equally, if not more, important to reflect WHY the statement is justified. Frequently understanding WHY requires additional challenge and reflection. Especially in group settings and during meeting conflict, participants may hear what was said but they need to understand why, and under what conditions the claim remains valid.

Therefore, challenging the WHY behind the WHAT becomes critical and a solid facilitator can challenge effectively with one word—“Because?”  Build consensus around causes, not symptoms, Getting everyone to understand under what conditions certain claims may be valid can ease some meeting conflict. Sometimes people are in violent agreement with each other and are doing a poor job of listening. Provides robust reflection that must include under what conditions the claim may hold true.

Active listening comprises four separate steps; namely:

  1. Make contact with the speaker, typically eye contact is leveraged to ensure the speaker is engaged,
  2. Absorb what is being said so that you can provide the entire group a summary of the individual’s contribution,
  3. Reflect what was said to ensure the speaker understands what they said. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHY; i.e., reason for the claim. Re-state how their response relates to the question at hand (frequently it is best to provide their reflection by writing it down on large Post-It paper), and then
  4. Confirm that their content, as reflected, is correct.

At least one person in any given group does not listen or hear what another person says. Some people don’t even listen to themselves. Reflection provides the most essential part of effective, active listening. However, you must confirm that your reflection is accurate.

III.   Align with Objectives

Sometimes people understand each other and yet continue to disagree. Many arguments like this are about future conditions that cannot be proved one way or another. Learn to appeal to the objectives of the project or initiative your meeting supports to resolve meeting conflict. If needed, advance further and appeal to the organizational values, as to which argument better harmonizes. In some cultures for example, safety is critical, and if one option can be viewed as ‘riskier’, it will likely be discounted. Finally, consider looking at the argument from the perspective of the executive sponsors or even the enterprise. If the CEO was in the meeting, what would they say, and more importantly, WHY?

Appealing to objectives will reconcile some meeting conflict, but not all of it. Use our holarchy for visual illustration of harmonizing objectives (available as a poster at What do you, as the facilitator, do if appealing to objectives is not effective?

Structured Facilitation Begins with Your Holarchy

For Conflict Resolution, Align with Objectives in the Holarchy

Carefully clarify and document the claims.

Ask the group to contrast the two claims and ask them “to what extent” each claim supports the the various purposes. Specifically ask:

  • To what extent does each position support the overall project objectives?
  • To what extent does each position support the program objectives (ie, the reasons for approving the project)?
  • (continuing up the holarchy, if necessary)
  • To what extent does each position support the business unit objectives (ie, what would the executive sponsor say)?
  • To what extent does each position support the enterprise objectives (ie, what would the chief executive officer say)?

If the three steps, in sequence, fail to drive consensual resolution, take the documented claims back to the steering team, decision review board, or other for their input. Almost always, they will appeal to the reasons they approved the project or program. Sometimes participants fail to agree with each other based on irrational or irreconcilable terms. No facilitator can build consensus around every issue, but having a method to follow provides the confidence that you have done your best.

IV. Document and Escalate

Carefully and fully document both arguments with supporting claims, evidence, and examples. Take this off-line, back to the executive sponsor and explain the method followed above. Tell them the group has reached an impasse and needs their help. Ask them to decide, and more importantly, share their rationale so that the BECAUSE can be brought back to meeting members to make them more effective in future decision-making situations.

Executives by the way will typically go back and Appeal to Objectives, asking questions like:

  • Why did we approve this project or initiative?
  • What were we trying to accomplish?
  • How does this initiative serve as a foundation for our strategy and future plans?

Typically, they will have better insight than team members because they are more intimate with future plans, shaping curves, and transitional and transformational efforts underway to ensure that your organization reaches its vision. When they share that understanding with you and your group, you are empowered to make higher quality decisions in future meetings.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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