Gina was furious. She’d been in conflict with her co-worker, Andie, for several months now. Gina maintained the dispute was all Andie’s fault. But Andie’s side of the story suggested that Gina’s behaviour was less than angelic. Beth, their team leader, was at her wits end. She wanted both parties to stop playing blame games and get back to work. If you recognise this dynamic, you’re familiar with the dynamics of Karpin’s drama triangle.

Karpin’s model suggests that workplace conflict results in three dysfunctional ‘roles’ playing out within a team. These are the roles of persecutor, victim and rescuer. Employees who tell blame-based stories usually cast themselves as victims and maintain that their difficult co-workers are the persecutors. If managers or HR practitioner step into rescuer roles, the game will continue. So it’s important that you remain neutral and objective. Your role is to coach rather than collude. Specifically, you need to use conflict coaching techniques to guide the employee through a process of:

  • Accepting that the problem is not their co-worker– it is a relationship dynamics issue
  • Taking responsibility for their own part in the issue
  • Defining what needs to change within the relationship
  • Developing an action plan for creating that change

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Here are some tips on how to action each step of this process.

1. Reframe the issue

Once the employee thinks differently about the situation, they’ll find it easier to step out of victim role. Your job is to help them put aside feelings such as anger, so they can view the problem objectively. To do this, you can use reframing techniques. Here are some useful phrases and spotlight questions to use during this stage of conflict coaching. You’ll notice they all contain the word ‘relationship’. This shifts the focus of the conversation away from blaming the employee’s co-worker and towards taking responsibility for the relationship dynamics.

  • It sounds as though your relationship with [name] needs to change
  • The relationship with [name] needs to improve
  • Lately you’re finding it hard to get on with [name]
  • How does your relationship with [name] need to change?
  • Are you saying you want your relationship with [name] to change?

For more information about how to reframe during coaching conversations, view Eleanor Shakiba’s video.

2. Spotlight the speaker’s contribution to the problem

During this stage of coaching, the employee needs to take responsibility for their part in the workplace conflict. You can help them do this by asking spotlight questions. For example:

  • How did you react when [name] said that?
  • What impact did your reaction have on the situation?
  • How were you standing during this conversation? What tone of voice were you using?
  • If I asked [name] to describe your behaviour in this situation, what would they say?
  • Looking back on the situation, is there anything you did which escalated it?

You can learn more about using spotlight questions in Eleanor Shakiba’s book Difficult People Made Easy.

3. Focus on defining the ideal relationship state

Step three of conflict coaching gives the employee motivation to change. It involves building a rich, sensory-specific description of the ‘ideal’ relationship state. Take your time during this stage. The longer the employee spends visualising a positive future, the more motivated they’ll be to create that future. Prompt their imagination by asking solution focussed questions such as:

  • If you came to work tomorrow and your relationship with [name] had transformed magically, what would be different? What would you see? What would you hear? What would you feel?
  • How would you like your relationship with [name] to be?
  • If you got on with [name] what would be different?
  • What needs to change in order for your relationship with [name] to improve?

4. Design an action plan

The final stage of conflict coaching involves working out what the employee will do next. Start by using solution focused questions to guide the action planning process. If necessary, provide micro skills coaching to help the employee master new assertive, communication patterns. It may also be useful to use role play techniques at this point. Just remember to keep the situation informal and psychologically safe. And always close the conflict coaching session by setting a date to review the employee’s progress in carrying out their plan.