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Tips and Tricks for Facilitating Conflict Resolution

We all know that conflict is a difference of opinion and therefore neutral-neither good nor bad. Right? But try telling that to a project manager or business analyst embroiled in conflict. Conflict can threaten to destroy the team and sabotage efforts to elicit requirements. But it doesn’t have to. Having a strong, neutral facilitator and a process for conflict resolution can reduce tensions and bring about a positive outcome.

Early in my career I was a liaison representing the interests of a large branch of a national bank. I was on a committee that met monthly to prioritize requirements. Each month I met with my branch management to determine their needs. Each month I and liaisons from the other branches would argue about which new systems and enhancements should be given priority. There was no formal facilitator. Conflict was rampant and remained unresolved. I don’t remember much being accomplished in these meetings. Each branch came in with its personal agenda and each of us went away unsatisfied with the results. Time after time I was in the unenviable position of having to tell my management that they weren’t going to get what they wanted. Again!

In retrospect one of the things I should have done was to spend time understanding the problem management was trying to solve. That way I could have presented a coherent set of recommendations at the monthly meetings.

Another thing I should have done was to meet individually with key representatives before each monthly meeting to discuss our concerns, find common ground, and build relationships. Instead of returning empty-handed each month, I should have returned with a recommendation that helped not just our bank, but the entire network of branches across the country. Everyone would have benefited.

Finally and maybe most importantly, the meetings would have run more smoothly if we had had a facilitator to tell us where we were going and keep us on track.

Many years later I learned that when conflict is preventing important tasks from completing, having a facilitator and a facilitation process is essential. Such a process might include:

  • Find a neutral facilitator. When emotions run high, it is important to find someone without a vested interest in the outcome. Some BAs and PMs take turns facilitating meetings for each other. Some organizations or PMOs provided facilitation services. What’s important is having a designated, neutral facilitator role.
  • The facilitator should set ground rules. One ground rule that can be used for conflict situations is that the participants will disagree with ideas and not people. This helps prevent the discussion from turning personal. If the discussion becomes emotional, the facilitator needs to bring the focus back to the issues at hand. If this is not possible right then, the meeting should adjourn.
  • Take time to understand the problem. Conflict arises for a variety of reasons. People have personal agendas, they think their way is the right way, they want to be recognized as experts, etc. We need to understand the real needs behind the stated needs, the issues behind the positions.
  • It is important for those in conflict to resolve it themselves. Once all participants understand the problem, we need to hold a brainstorming session to generate ideas to solve the problem. This can be done individually or in a group. Sometimes it is useful to have the participants write ideas on yellow stickies. It is important at this point to concentrate on generating ideas to solve the problem, not to evaluate the ideas presented.
  • Prioritize the solutions that have been generated by comparing approximate costs and benefits. You may need follow-up action items to quantify both the costs and benefits of the solutions.
  • Another facilitated session may be needed to develop a recommendation, or the recommendation can be assigned to one of several of the participants.
  • Present the recommendation to a pre-determined decision-maker, such as a project sponsor. It’s important to have a designated tie-breaker to ensure the conflict is resolved.

These steps will not prevent conflict, which is a natural part of a project. But they will help keep the project on track and prevent ruined relationships.

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Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CEO and Co-Principal of Watermark Learning ( has over 25 years of experience in business, project management, requirements analysis, business analysis and leadership. She has presented workshops, seminars, and presentations since 1996 to thousands of participants on three different continents. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes, PMI North American, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific Global Congresses, various chapters of PMI, and ProjectWorld and Business Analyst World. Elizabeth was the lead contributor to the PMBOK® Guide – Fourth Edition in the new Collect Requirements Section 5.1 and to the BABOK® Guide – 2.0 Chapter on Business Analysis Planning and Monitoring. Elizabeth has co-authored the CBAP Certification Study Guide and the Practitioner’s Guide to Requirements Planning, as well as industry articles that have been published worldwide. She can be reached at [email protected]

Elizabeth Larson

Elizabeth Larson, has been the CEO for Watermark Learning as well as a consultant and advisor for Educate 360. She has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide, as well as the several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.