Conflict Resolution Activities to Build a Stronger Team

Play to Win!

Business leaders and managers increasingly accept that greater diversity in teams brings fresh thinking and other significant benefits. International studies show companies with diverse management teams are more innovative and resilient, outperforming the market. But left unchecked, the same differences in individual outlook and experience can also cause conflict, and impact business performance. Conflict resolution activities offer an effective way to empower team members to resolve conflicts constructively and co-operate creatively.

Mixed race group of business people standing in a team building circle.

Some people may be sceptical, even resistant, when you raise the idea. But take time to explain the likely benefits and get them involved, and they’ll come to a different perspective.

This article explores how conflict resolution activities help us refocus on collaboration. We explore the impact of conflict and how it can also be beneficial, harnessed properly.  And from there, we look at different types of conflict and the strategies people default to. We look at the games in Mary Scannell’s the big book of conflict resolution games, which you can download free.  And we go through what’s involved as a facilitator of these activities. Game on!

How Can We Overcome our Instinctive Conflict Strategies?

Addressing conflict constructively is an important soft skill because people react instinctively to conflict in a number of ways. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five strategies we use in resolving them. These are based on there being a fixed number of combinations of assertiveness and cooperativeness to shape our response. You can also see these strategies in terms of ignoring, winning and losing.

  • Avoid (Ignoring): You’re neither assertive nor cooperative. Instead, either you’re ignoring the conflict, or withdrawing. We do this when the fear of confrontation is stronger than our desire for a satisfying resolution. But you won’t move things on by ignoring the conflict. Avoiding it means it’s still there.
  • Compete (Win/Lose): This means being assertive, but not cooperating. There should be just one winner, and it’s you. You’re not listening to the other person, and that won’t solve the problem.
  • Accommodate (Lose/Win): You’re co-operating, but not being assertive. Giving way to keep the peace could mean the problem remains.
  • Compromise (Lose-Lose): Neither side is being totally assertive or co-operative. Yes, you will reach a settlement. But for how long?

Conflict resolution activities make us self-aware and help us move faster to the best one of these strategies, which is:

  • Collaborate (Win-Win): You and the others are both asserting yourselves and cooperating. You’re validating the other person, understanding and accepting each other’s position. And you’re actively listening and moving forward.

The Best Conflict Solution is Learning Through Experience

Conflict can clear tensions and uncover issues causing them, but doesn’t feel comfortable. The ideal approach is accepting it’s a fact of life and working towards a Win-Win. Conflict resolution activities are based on learning this through experience. In John Dewey’s experiential learning theory, the best learning happens in a social environment. So, for best results, organise learning about conflict resolution around real-life experiences, putting the information into context.

Teambuilding workshop with conflict resolution activities

A Wealth of Free Ideas to Choose From

People have devised many different conflict resolution activities over the years, addressing specific areas. An excellent reference source is Mary Scannell’s the big book of conflict resolution games, published by McGraw-Hill in 2010. The subtitle is Quick, effective activities to improve communication, trust and collaboration. It details plenty of activities covering different types of conflict, along with explanations and worksheets. The book also sets out what you need to do as the facilitator. And best of all, you can download it free.

Why is it Bad for Businesses to Let Conflicts Go Unchecked?

Unresolved conflict can:

  • Reduce morale.
  • Hamper performance.
  • Decrease productivity.
  • Increase absenteeism.
  • Make employees stressed.
  • Cause aggressive behaviour.
  • Result in the group breaking down and people leaving.

At the same time, conflict challenges us to:

  • Think harder.
  • Be more creative.
  • Develop greater understanding.
  • Find more efficient, effective and productive ways of working.

The Value of Conflict Resolution Activities

Business is all about connecting and co-operating. But differences will arise, and when we don’t see beyond our individual perspectives, conflicts occur and ultimately we stop connecting. When that happens, we should calm our natural ‘fight or flight’ reaction and work on reconnecting with the people concerned. These activities equip you and your team to do just that.

How Do Conflict Resolution Activities Help Teams?

teamwork spelt out in scrabble tiles on papers

They help members to:

  • Experience the conflict process in a safe, fun, supportive environment and learn effective strategies for the future.
  • Understand key points that are relevant, clear and memorable and drive home the ideas.
  • Build morale, so people feel confident about owning their learning and enjoy doing it.
  • Trust each other, sharing insights, emotions and experiences, and developing understanding and appreciation of different viewpoints.
  • Become more flexible and adaptive, appreciating there may be more than one way to solve problems.
  • Feel more connected: When people feel connected with colleagues, they’re more likely to look for ways to collaborate rather than compete.

They also provide opportunities for leaders and managers to:

  • Reinforce appropriate behaviours: When teams show co-operation and active listening, or extend trust in these sessions, leaders and managers can show appreciation.

Why Do Workplace Conflicts Happen?

Conflicts arise for a variety of reasons:

  • Communication: Lack of open communication tends to drive conflict underground and create misunderstanding and hostility.
  • Competition: Competing for limited resources can generate interpersonal or interdepartmental conflict. When colleagues compete for scarce resources, recognition or position in the hierarchy, conflict can occur.
  • Inconsistency: Company policies can cause conflicts when they change, or are inconsistently applied or non-existent. Misunderstandings are likely to arise. Your team should know and understand your rules and policies, not have to guess.
  • Diversity: Workplace diversity and differences in temperament and working styles can also spark conflict. Embracing differences and valuing new ideas turns conflict into collaboration.
  • Perspective: Colleagues may have conflicting perceptions, so they see the same incident or issue very differently. For instance, in multi-generational workplaces, each generation will have their own perspective.
  • Interdependency: When colleagues or departments rely on each other and share the same deadline, conflicting pressures can arise. Interdependency means understanding each other’s point of view, needs and priorities and reaching agreement.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Dealing with colleagues as human beings with real lives is often overlooked in workplaces. Empathy and sensitivity to others’ feelings is very helpful in reducing conflict. People with high emotional intelligence are able to do this in a professional manner, while keeping appropriate boundaries. People who don’t see this as important risk making situations worse for themselves and their colleagues. 

Activities to Address Key Conflict Areas

As we’ve said, conflict resolution activities let teams experience conflict in a safe and supportive environment. They help team members understand their instinctive reactions and the likely consequences, and explore better strategies. And all while having fun.

Here are some key areas and suggestions. You’ll find details of these games, plus explanations and worksheets, in Mary Scannell’s the big book of conflict resolution games. It’s free to download as a PDF:

Book cover titled The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games

Understanding Conflict

Experiencing conflict safely, working together to find solutions, and discovering tools to transform future conflicts:

Activities: How do you see it: Positive Spin: Step by Step: Conflict Close Up: Bulls Eye: Note to Self: Anything Goes: Beach Ball Pass: Helium Hoop: Check It Out: Pins and Needles

Communication

Developing effective communication skills, specifically listening and engaging in true dialogue, overcoming emotion and turning conflict into constructive discussion.

Activities: You don’t say: The Way We See It: I’m Listening: Mimes: One Question: Re-Creation: Pass the Chips: Keys to Communication: On the Run: Supply Closet: The Butler Did It

Diversity

Discovering and appreciating team members’ diversity and how this understanding makes the group more effective.

Activities: Another Name Game: Common Uncommon: Diversity Pays: It’s Classified: In or Out: Take a Walk: What a Bunch of Characters

Trust

Building trust makes teams stronger, more supportive and comfortable with each other.

Activities: Two Truths and a Lie – with a Twist: Five and Five: Single File: Words of Wisdom: Word Search: Rock and Roll: Consensus Thumbs

Perspective

Appreciating their own unique perspectives and being aware of other people’s develops teams’ mutual understanding.

Activities: In Character: The Usual Suspects: Resolutions: Building Blocks: Cross Over: Hoop-La: Speed Pass

Emotional Intelligence

Building empathy and sensitivity helps team members interact more effectively, because they are more aware of themselves and others.

Activities: Behind the Mask: Shoes: Let’s Face It: Knot It: Hot Buttons: Get the Memo: The Shoe’s on The Other Foot: Tied Up in Knots

Collaboration

Developing our willingness to collaborate and explore win-win solutions. This can mean changing ingrained assumptions that influence how we understand situations and respond. It starts with giving each other equal importance and respect.

Activities: Personality Plus: It’s a What: Creative Collaboration: Stump the Facilitator: Build a Word: Super Stars: Quotable Quotes: Monumental

The Facilitator’s Role: The Master of the Game

Two businessmen huddled around female leader

The key to making conflict resolution activities work is having a competent facilitator.

What Makes a Good Facilitator?

  • Prepare your materials and props.
  • Take charge and keep an eye on the time.
  • Introduce the activity with an explanation and background.
  • Explain the rules and guidelines.
  • Be aware of what’s happening in the activity.
  • Take notes.
  • Encourage.
  • Redirect.
  • Stop activities for a mid-way discussion if necessary.
  • Lead the discussion at the end and keep to the discussion questions.

How Do You Keep Everyone Involved?

  • Have small teams.
  • Use observers who can provide a big picture overview in the discussion afterwards.
  • Give the discussion questions at the end to the teams to chat among themselves, before the group discussion.

Good Game, Good Game!

What to Look For in Choosing Conflict Resolution Activities

For best results, activities should be

  • Impactful: Find activities that leave a lasting impression.
  • Inexpensive: Pick activities needing few props, or props you can use repeatedly.
  • Participative: Involve the whole team, leaving no-one on the side. The best activities focus people’s energy and attention on learning to be better team players.
  • Engaging: When team members collaborate to solve a challenge, you engage them throughout the process.

How Can You Ensure Success With These Activities?

  • Embrace the idea that conflict can be positive: Really commit to promoting this way of thinking. Do your homework and work out which activities will work best for your team. Make sure you feel comfortable with the process of experiential learning. If not, think about calling in an external facilitator.
  • Invest the time: Make sure you have enough time to allow your team to have the full experience and an insightful and meaningful debrief afterwards. Short on time? Find activities that build trust, improve communication or foster a sense of community, as an appetiser for a longer session.
  • Allow the activities to work: Trust that although a particular activity may progress differently from how you anticipated, it will still provide the lessons your team needs. Don’t try and take too much control.
  • Anticipate resistance: If some team members resist, that’s okay. Some activities may not be a good fit for some people, for instance physical games requiring a lot of movement. Let non-players be observers, taking notes for the group and providing insights in the discussion afterwards.
  • Let people work through their frustration: Frustration can lead to real-life conflict. If it arises in the activity, let the group experience it as part of the resolution process. A discussion midway can enhance the experience and maintain participation.
  • Panic stations: Without proper lead-in activities, some people may feel uncomfortable and shut down. Even with these as an icebreaker, they may still do so. Be ready and address this in the debriefings. Be on hand to give support and encouragement throughout.
  • Practice makes perfect: Try out the activities with family, friends or colleagues beforehand so you can focus on what’s happening with your team. You should also be able to anticipate where things may go and be ready to let it happen.

AND FINALLY: What to do, Before and After

When people see the potential benefits of conflict, they become less afraid of it. Conflict resolution activities are a great way to experience these benefits. But, as a facilitator, you need to pay close attention and engage everyone all the way through.

  • Before: Some people may be hesitant to participate at first. But with appropriate icebreakers for climate-setting and rapport-building, and competent facilitation, they can ease in naturally. You may find that the more reluctant these participants are initially, the more dramatic the result.
  • After: The discussion afterwards is where the bulk of the learning happens. Engaging in conflict, even make-believe, can be daunting. You need to provide support and encouragement as they practise these skills and develop confidence using them. Letting larger groups debrief in smaller numbers encourages greater involvement. As facilitator, you needn’t be part of every discussion, but give them the same questions to work through.

Tailor your debriefing discussion to your team’s real-world needs. Shift their attention from what happened to what they have learnt, that they can put to use in their work. Keep records of the key learning points and action plans, to review and follow up later.

Most of all, even if the activity is serious, let the group have fun. The more people enjoy themselves, the more likely they’ll stay engaged. They’ll participate more fully, and retain the lessons longer. The team will trust you more and you can take them further. And as facilitator, you will have a better comfort zone. So, download the big book and crack on!

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