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Meiss Education Institute

The Coach as Co-Facilitator: Helping Resolve Conflicts Between Others
By Rich Meiss

Coaching For Results Series: V

One of the slipperiest slopes that supervisors and even parents often find themselves on is having two employees or kids get crossways with each other, and then having them come to the supervisor or parent to resolve the differences. Their message is that “we don’t know how to solve this conflict between us, so would you please resolve it for us.” What they are doing is transferring the responsibility for the situation from themselves to the supervisor or parent. If not handled properly, this can become a lose-lose proposition. To handle this situation appropriately, the supervisor or parent needs to become a co-facilitator.

The word facilitate comes from the French word, “facile”, and means “to make easy.” The goal of a manager, parent or “coach” in this situation is to help the two concerned parties to facilitate their own solution. So in this sense, the coach becomes a co-facilitator. Good coaches realize that they must not take the responsibility on their own shoulders to solve the problem (unless it is a parent working with very young children), but that they need to help the two people come up with their own solution. They keep the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the other two, while agreeing to help facilitate a solution.

Let’s say that employee A (Al) has a disagreement with employee B (Bonita). Al comes to your office complaining about Bonita, and asks you to help resolve the issue.   As a coach, your first line of defense is to ask Al if he has talked to Bonita about this situation. Encourage him to have a face-to-face conversation with Bonita and see if the two of them can work things out. Once you are satisfied that the two of them have met and discussed things, but were not able to resolve their differences, you may then decide to become a co-facilitator in the situation.

The methodology for this co-facilitation process is very specific and detailed. There are five key steps that, if executed well, will usually lead to a mutually satisfying resolution. Let’s look at each step separately, and then put them all together at the end.

Step 1 is to find neutral ground on which to conduct your meeting. Do NOT meet at either of the employee’s offices or work stations. And if possible, get out of your office also. Find a conference room or some other room that is totally enclosed and private. You want all parties involved to feel that this meeting will be private and confidential. The way you seat the three of you for this meeting is also critical. Have employee A face employee B in chairs – knee to knee and several feet apart. Your chair should be to the side of both of them, placed 3 feet or so back and also centered in the middle of them. Graphically, the set-up looks like this:      

  A -  B (A and B facing each other)
  C (Coach facing both of them)

Step 2 is to establish protocol. Greet the two participants and tell them the purpose of the meeting. In the example given above, you would explain to Bonita that Al had come to you with a challenge, you had asked the two of them to meet, and it appears that the situation is still not totally resolved. Tell them that the purpose of this meeting is for you to FACILITATE a resolution between the two of them.

Explain the two key guidelines for the discussion: 

1) Only one person should speak at a time
2) Each person should try to share “facts” only – what they saw or heard.

Step 3 is to manage the process. Begin by asking the originating party (Al in this case) to share his concern. Once Al has finished speaking, give Bonita a chance to share her perspective on the situation. During the conversation, remain neutral as best you can and follow the protocol mentioned above (you’ll probably have to keep reminding them of facts only, and only one person speaking at a time). From time to time, summarize the issues as you’ve heard them.

Step 4 is to assume the role of a confidant. Ask solution-focused questions during the discussion, looking for answers or compromises to the situation. Some examples of these kinds of questions include: “What do you think might work in this situation?”, “How do you see this working out?”, and “When do you think you could start this new procedure?” (See the article on The Coach as Confidant for more ideas on solution-focused questions.) Help the two parties come to a mutually agreeable resolution. Be careful not to force any solution on either party, as this usually leads to having to re-visit the situation.

Step 5 is to agree to re-visit the situation. It usually sounds something like this: “Al and Bonita, I’m pleased that you’ve come to an agreed-upon solution to this situation. I’d like for us to meet back in this same room at the same time next week, just for a check-up on how it’s going. Then if we need to make any adjustments, we can do so and keep this thing moving positively forward. Thank you – I’ll see you both here next week.” This impending meeting usually causes both Al and Bonita to work hard to make the solution work, because they know they will be held accountable the following week.

So in summary, the steps of the process are as follows:
          1. Find neutral ground and set the chairs appropriately
          2. Establish protocol
                   One person speaking at a time
                   Share “facts” only – what did they see or hear
          3. Manage the process 
                   Remain neutral
                   Follow the protocol
                   Summarize the issues
          4. Assume the role of a confidant, by asking solution-focused questions
          5. Agree to revisit the solution

Always be careful to keep the responsibility for working out the problems on the shoulders of the two participants. Each or both of them will want to shift the burden to your shoulders, but a skilled coach (and parent) will avoid this situation. By keeping the responsibility for resolution on their shoulders, you are teaching them a process for conflict resolution that will help them the rest of their lives. By doing this, you are fulfilling the job of a good coach – building people, while getting results! 

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