How to Resolve Staff Conflicts


As a pet store owner or manager, it's your job to help your team resolve their conflicts and help associates learn and grow from conflict situations. Bringing the parties together allows you to first uncover, define and discuss the problem, and then find a resolution and develop an action plan.

In your role as facilitator, it's important to remain objective and neutral. While you can make suggestions and help guide associates to a resolution, your focus should be on empowering your team to solve their own problems.

Take Responsibility
Conflict is a fact of life in any pet store. Conflicts arise even on the most productive teams, as people with different habits, preferences and opinions work together. Taking responsibility for conflict and helping associates resolve their issues with each other is an important part of your job.

Conflict can ruin team dynamics and destroy trust. Conflict also negatively impacts your team's ability to achieve your store's performance and profitability goals. To avoid these negative results, you must create an environment where conflicts are recognized and defused as they arise. That includes modeling for your team how to face problems head on.

Schedule a Meeting
Once you have decided to take responsibility for conflict, the next step is to facilitate a conflict intervention meeting. During the meeting, your objectives are to:

• Uncover the real issue.
• Define the problem and get commitment to solve it.
• Discuss possible solutions and select the appropriate outcome.

Taking these steps is not always easy because sometimes the real reason for the conflict is hidden. People may be reluctant to bring up a problem or may not be willing to share their side of the conflict they experienced. To uncover the truth, you need to get everyone together to discuss the problem.

Suggest Ground Rules
Because your team will be expressing a lot of intense emotions, you need to set ground rules at the beginning of the meeting. Good examples of ground rules include:

• Everyone agrees to be open and honest.
• Everyone will have his or her say and be heard.
• Everyone will back up feelings or emotions with a fact or example of behavior.
• Everyone will listen to each other without argument or reaction and have a positive attitude.

It's a good idea to state these rules up front and get everyone's agreement to follow them. If people forget to follow the ground rules during the meeting, be sure to repeat them and insist they be followed.

Ask Questions
Once you have established the ground rules and received agreement to follow them, it's time to get to the heart of the problem. As you facilitate the meeting, your goal is to hear all sides of the situation. You want all the people involved to tell the facts they know and express their feelings.

To make sure you fully understand the conflict, ask open-ended questions to encourage participants to share their views and help you gather information quickly. Then, use closed-ended questions that require yes or no answers to confirm you understand what's been said.

Example Questions for Conflict Intervention

Open-Ended Questions

Closed-Ended Questions

  “Please tell me what happened during

  “Tell me more about the problem with
   the supplier.”

  “Can you give me more detail?”

  “What would you like to see happen?”

  “Did you restock the reptile

  “Did you ask Paul for help?”

  "Did the distributor rep call you back

  “Did you get a copy of the new
   planogram from Marcia?”

Listen Effectively
Effective listening involves hearing and showing others that you truly understand what has been said. There are three levels of effective listening:

• Acknowledging: Show that you hear what is being said and indicate when you want the person to say more. Acknowledging what you hear can be nonverbal, such as making eye contact or nodding. Or it may include saying, “I see,” or “Tell me more,” during natural breaks in the conversation.

• Paraphrasing: Use your own words to summarize what you think you heard the employee say. Paraphrasing is especially useful when you need to clarify complex messages or when you want to focus the conversation on the most important issues.

• Active Listening: Help defuse emotions by recognizing them. Listen actively to identify the underlying emotion that someone is feeling, then paraphrase what has been said. For example, “You're ________ because ________” or “The fact that ________ makes you ________.”

Be Objective
As you listen to the people in a conflict present their feelings and experiences, it can be challenging to remain objective, particularly when associates pressure you to take sides.

Remember, the purpose of a conflict intervention meeting is not to assign blame. The purpose is to uncover, define and discuss the underlying source of the problem. Your job as facilitator is to listen objectively and maintain your focus on the participants' perceptions.

Define the Problem
After spending the first part of your conflict intervention meeting asking questions and listening objectively, you must now define the problem.

People are unlikely to work on a solution until they acknowledge and can agree on the problem. A good way to help associates do that is to offer feedback by restating or paraphrasing what has been said.

An amazing thing often happens once you paraphrase the problem back to the conflicting parties: they begin to understand the other side of the issue and take responsibility for solving the conflict themselves.

Develop an Action Plan
Once you’ve encouraged your team to understand the root cause of the conflict, the next step is to develop an action plan.

Begin by asking open-ended questions to encourage them to brainstorm possible solutions. Then summarize the outcome in writing, set a follow-up date and assign action items. Finally, make sure you communicate your action plan to everyone who has responsibilities for carrying out or supporting the plan.

Avoid Traps
Conflict intervention is a challenging task. It requires you to be objective, sincere and patient. Being all those things can be difficult, particularly for less experienced managers.

As the facilitator, focus on avoiding the following traps during the meeting:

• Don’t just demand the facts. When emotions are involved—and they almost always are in a conflict situation—it is important to let both parties vent their feelings. This will calm them down and prepare them to listen to the other side's ideas.

• Don’t make judgments about the conflict. Sometimes, it is tempting to make up your mind about a conflict before you have all the information, particularly if you've witnessed similar situations. However, your job is to help resolve the conflict. It’s the people in conflict whose perspectives count. Your perspective and past experience aren’t what matters here.

• Don’t mentally rehearse what people will say next. It’s tempting predict what each party will say once they have the opportunity to express themselves. But don’t be so sure you’re right: people can surprise you. Also, mentally rehearsing keeps you from listening to what is said. Instead, you hear what you expect to hear.

• Don’t assume you know all the facts. Part of the reason you are conducting a conflict intervention meeting is to discover facts that might not be known to all parties. Ask probing, open-ended questions to try and get as much information out in the open as you can.

• Don’t interrupt or complete people’s sentences. This can make them feel like you are not really listening. The ground rules for the meeting apply to you as the facilitator, as well as the conflicting parties.

Remember that your real goal is to empower your team members to solve their own problems. You can make suggestions and help guide them to a resolution. But in the end, the responsibility for solving the problem lies squarely on the conflicting parties' shoulders.

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro. Since it was first launched in 2008, over 6,000 retailers have turned to Pet Store Pro for brand-neutral training on critical skills for associates, managers and owners. Pet Store Pro is free to qualified retailers; visit to register and begin using the program.

This article was adapted from “Managing Workplace Conflict,” one of 29 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover include taking a positive approach to conflict, dealing with difficult people, analyzing conflict types and dimensions, and facilitating conflict intervention meetings. The chapter also includes a downloadable worksheet to help managers develop an action plan for conflict resolution.

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