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The Key to Helping Your Team Navigate Conflict in the Workplace Comes Down to This

In the wake of the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting movements, companies of every size and in every industry are beginning to recognize the importance of building a safe and supportive workplace culture. It makes sense: a growing body of research has shown that a toxic culture can lead to decreased morale and lowered productivity, which in turn can prevent an organization from retaining talent, growing revenue, and scaling.

In the wake of this growing awareness, many leaders find themselves asking how. How do they create an organization where employees feel free to talk through disagreements, share differing points of view, and show up authentically as themselves? How do they foster an environment where team members can safely navigate conflict with each other? How do they minimize disruption and maximize productivity in a culture like this? And, how do they prevent issues between co-workers from spiraling out of control?

If you’ve been asking yourself the same questions, we want to give you the answer we give many of the leaders we work with: it all starts with centering humanity in the workplace. If that feels like nebulous advice, don’t worry. We’re going to share a practical tool with you here that will help you do just that. This tool, which is known as the RIR Protocol, allows you to reframe conflict into constructive dialogue, which will naturally increase morale and drive productivity and innovation. 

Let’s walk through it together.

Tension Isn’t Always Bad

Before we talk about how to use the RIR Protocol in your organization, we want to share one very important thing: tension isn’t always bad. If your employees have bottled their feelings up for a long time, there’s a strong likelihood they may initially erupt when they’re given the space and support to talk about how they feel.

We encounter situations like this all the time when our clients start this work: more voices start to speak, which means more issues start to surface. Don’t think of this as a negative. Instead, learn to see it as a sign that progress is being made. Bottom line, while they may initially feel uncomfortable, these kinds of responses give everyone the opportunity to apply the Protocol to what’s coming up, which builds organizational capacity to dialogue about difficult topics.

As a leader, it’s important to help your employees understand this point, too. If folks start to get agitated, angry, frustrated, or withdrawn, draw compassionate attention to it. Ask them if they notice and feel what’s happening. Then, remind them that you can all use the steps in the RIR Protocol (which we’ll go over in a moment) to relax, get unstuck, and start moving forward again.

One other point before we move on to the RIR Protocol itself: as a leader, you have to get comfortable with the idea that problems can’t always be resolved with a single conversation. Keep in mind, though, that by regularly practicing the steps in the Protocol, you can reduce the long-term negative impacts that unresolved conflict will have on your employees and your organization.

Start With Self-Regulation

Now that we’ve laid the foundation, let’s talk about the specific steps of using the RIR Protocol. Remember, you can use these steps yourself, and you can coach your employees through them, too.

RIR stands for recognize, interrupt, and repair. So, the first step of using the Protocol is to self-regulate by recognizing what’s coming up after something triggering happens. It’s often helpful to think through a series of specific questions when going through this step: What’s happening in my body right now? What do I feel emotionally? What story am I telling myself? Am I unsafe? Or uncomfortable? 

By taking the time to stop and reflect on these questions, you (or the team members you’re coaching to use the Protocol) can prepare to consider the situation from a different perspective. You can begin exploring what you’re feeling, rather than simply focusing on what the other person said or did. Recognizing is also a great way to start to release difficult emotions moving through the body, so you can free up space to look at what’s going on below the surface of the issue.

Sometimes, of course, the emotions are too intense to sift through right then and there. That’s okay; just make sure to revisit them once the heat of the moment has passed, and to hold space for whatever’s coming up before moving on to the next step in the Protocol.

Dig Deep and Find the Root Issue

After everyone has had the opportunity to recognize what’s coming up, it’s time to dig deeper. To be more specific, it’s time to interrupt.

Interrupting provides a way for all the parties involved to address what happened and get to the root issue. A great way to do this is to ask non-blaming questions (and to do so from a place of genuine curiosity). For example, the person who felt triggered could say, “When you made X comment, it made me feel Y. What did you mean when you said that?” Asking questions like this opens the doorway for compassionate, authentic dialogue and allows both parties to explore what happened together.

As you work through this step, be aware that there are some common dialogue diversions that tend to occur. These include guilt and shame, disbelief and denial, defensiveness, deference and withdrawal, and/or problem solving. For example, in many of the organizations we work with, a common dynamic we see is that, when staff of color try to talk about race and racial dynamics, often their White colleagues interpret those conversations as an accusation of racism, even if their colleague explicitly says that is not their point.

Reactions like this tend to be isolating for everyone involved. So, if they occur, ask everyone to pause, self-regulate and recognize their initial reactions. Then, guide them to interrupt using non-blaming questions and active listening so they can hear what is actually being shared. 

Stay Engaged by Repairing

Recognizing and interrupting are foundational for successfully navigating uncomfortable conversations. However, there’s one more step required to build a truly cohesive culture where people feel safe to express themselves. This step is repairing.

Repairing is all about staying engaged. Whether you’re coaching employees through this process or practicing it yourself, it starts with asking one question: How will you keep learning and challenging your preconceptions? Thinking through some follow-up questions is also useful. Consider, for example, what follow-up conversations are needed, how the affected parties plan to signal their commitment to repair with each other, and whether or not anyone else needs to be involved.

Repairing isn’t about “letting people off the hook.” It requires accountability, thinking about what expectations need to be created (or reaffirmed) to move forward, and defining processes for ensuring those expectations are met. However, repairing isn’t about being punitive, either.

Remember, the aim is to create a compassionate and supportive culture where everyone feels safe to work through issues and discuss conflict. Staying engaged, accountable, and supportive is key to achieving this goal.

Establish Engagement Agreements

As you work through the three steps of the Protocol (or coach employees through them), it’s helpful to establish what we call Engagement Agreements. These are key to maintaining boundaries in what might be emotional conversations; by putting them into place beforehand—and referring back to them when needed—you can help ensure that dialogue is compassionate and productive.

There are seven agreements that we recommend our clients use. First and foremost, be curious. Remember, nobody has the full picture alone. Next, always center humanity as you move through the steps of the Protocol. 

Third, listen actively and compassionately. Fourth, practice self-regulation. Fifth, meet everyone where they are so you can move forward together: that will allow for learning and mistakes. Sixth, maintain a growth mindset—being a lifelong learner is important. Finally, use the RIR Protocol when addressing any difficult conversation.

It’s helpful to post these agreements where everyone can see them. Ask team members to keep them in mind when speaking with each other. And, if you notice that they aren’t adhering to these agreements, step in and gently guide them back on course.

Keep Practicing

The real power of the RIR Protocol is that it can be applied in a multitude of scenarios. For example, if an employee experiences a belittling comment or a microaggression, you can help them address it in real-time using the Protocol. You can also set up regular meetings where you all come together as a group to use the RIR Protocol to address any issues between team members before they erupt into full-blown conflict.

The Protocol is also a great way to start general meetings. Set aside a few minutes to check in with attendees and see how they’re feeling. Are they stressed? Frustrated? Anxious? Exhausted? Relaxed? Whatever they’re feeling, invite them to talk through how they might be able to self-regulate so they can dig into the root issue and repair it. Making it a point to do this will help people get in the habit of recognizing their emotions. Depending on what comes up, go a step further and invite them to ask questions (i.e. dig deeper).

To use the Protocol proactively, consider incorporating it into all of your meeting discussions. For example, let’s say you call a meeting to discuss a brand-new organizational policy. Rather than just telling your team about the policy, invite them to share their initial thoughts, emotions, and perspectives about it (recognize). Next, ask what perspectives they want to share about the policy (interrupt). Finally, if applicable, make a decision based on all the input shared (repair). By consistently making space for employees to safely share their perspectives—and, of course, truly considering those perspectives—you’ll foster greater trust and collaboration throughout your organization, and make it far more likely that team members will stay engaged and practice innovation and teamwork.

Bottom line, once you’ve seeded the RIR Protocol into your organization, you will find that employees begin normalizing self-regulation. With ongoing practice, they will automatically start interrupting and digging deeper. And, as they learn to repair, the culture of trust and cohesiveness you’ve been seeking will begin to take shape throughout your organization.

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