How can I sharpen my conflict resolution skills?
December 3, 2008 5:06 PM   Subscribe

Conflict resolution-filter: How can I be a better (read: appropriately responsive and fair) moderator and listener? A lot more inside.

I am a shift supervisor at a large coffee shop. First, let me make a few things about my title clear:

-I cannot fire anyone.
-I can't always send people home, if it's a busy day
-I do not make the schedule
-It is imperative that I don't (I can't even seem to) play favorites
-I have a load of responsibility to the store, as I am an active manager when there, and this whole post is only about part of the things I have to deal with.

However, the following dilemma can ruin an entire day, trickle down through morale, and ultimate affect the entire operation of the store. This is why I'm posting. Okay, here 'goes....

My job requires me to manage coworkers who deal with the same issues I do. A lot of the time, because we're in the customer service and retail industry and rely on each other to make work easier and more efficient, those issues often pertain to problems between coworkers.

When a dispute breaks out between two or more of them, they will typically come to me individually and gripe about the one another. It is my responsibility to listen to these concerns (no matter how trivial they can be), and try to effectively quell the tide of hysteria or complaining to resolution.

If I can't solve the problem, I at least need to deal with it to the point where work can continue unabated until the manager has the time to address it themselves.

This is just one aspect of my roll at the store, and I by no means have the leisure to sharpen that one skill. I'm often in the very same boat as these coworkers, working along side them. Besides having to be there for my coworkers, I am always dealing with the customers' needs, my superiors' requests, and anything else that might crop up (See top where I explain that I am effectively an active manager when I'm on the clock).

So I turn to AskMe for this one. I need to make sure my coworkers are feeling like they are being heard, that their concerns or complaints are being addressed, and that they can always talk to me. I often find myself feeling weird sympathizing with both sides of an argument (I almost feel superficial), and am tired of just feeling like a nodding head on a stick. I realize that that's the basic want of someone who is venting, but there's definitely more.

What advise can you, the great hive mind, give me about conflict resolution? What do you like to hear or see from someone you are going to to have your issues dealt with? What does this role of mine dictate in these often delicate situations? And how can I feel less boss-like and more confidant-ish?

I realize there are a multitude of books on the subject, but I often find them containing bland language or (to me) over-analytic fallacies. I'm dealing with people, not first-initial-last-names on a roster. And I'm one of those people.

In essence, help me help you*!

*as in the people
posted by self to Human Relations (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you can't fire them or do anything to alter their conditions of work, then you aren't their boss in any significant way. Your boss, in fact, is cynically offloading his/her responsibility to deal with the workplace's trivial concerns onto you, without giving you the tools or authority you need. You feel like a nodding head on a stick because---I'm sorry---you are.
Your boss needs to take responsibility for running a business.
Your coworkers should have spoonfuls of concrete and harden the f&*k up.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:21 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's actually my boss's boss's boss's Boss's team of people that drum this kind of stuff up that are the ones ultimate responsible for the policies that delegate responsibility. I took on the job knowing what it entailed, so I have no desire to shirk responsibility simply because it's hard. I enjoy the challenge, and it makes me want to learn. Hence, the Q you just read.

I'm there, the concerns affect me, therefore not only do I have to deal with them when the boss isn't there, I want to.
posted by self at 5:28 PM on December 3, 2008

I took on the job knowing what it entailed, so I have no desire to shirk responsibility simply because it's hard. I enjoy the challenge, and it makes me want to learn.

Your bosses have removed the tools you need to have in order to be able to manage properly. When you understand this, you will have learned all there is to know about this situation.
posted by 517 at 7:28 PM on December 3, 2008

I am confused about what disputes you are talking about. I have 15 yrs customer service experience, including retail, so I am familiar with the dynamics. I have also been a supervisor with no power at all, so I know your position. Are you referring to co-workers complaining that someone else isn't doing their job (or doing it wrong, or doing it slow?) Or are these personality conflicts?

If you aren't the boss and cannot change the situation or make changes to prevent the problem from happening again (such as changing schedules to have a more harmonious group, firing constant slackers, issuing written warnings) then all you can do is listen to the two sides venting. And if you are doing that every shift then I guarantee that your "good workers", the mature ones that don't complain about everyone else, and don't take a vent break on company time to get their egos massaged by you, are resenting your poor management and resenting the extra work you are putting on them to continue serving customers short-staffed while you and your buddies have a useless heart-to-heart in the backroom with the same script.

I think you are being manipulated by your co-workers and you need to stop trying to be their buddy andas soon as they start to complain have them write out a report (taking less then five minutes) and they submit it to your boss, who can do something about it. Lead by example and serve the customers, if these "problems" they keep having are preventing them from doing their jobs then maybe they should look into another line of work.
posted by saucysault at 7:36 PM on December 3, 2008

it sounds like your place in the chain of hierarchy is to just soften the blow and be the listening outlet for your coworkers' ventings (this isn't a judgment on the worth of your role, it just is what it is). given the parameters for the situation you've laid out it seems you can only do two things: 1) be a listening, sympathising ear that allows the workers to feel some relief without creating any real change, and 2) refer the issue to your immediate boss. you seem to be describing your role as a 'buffer' rather than a supervisor or manager.
you said, "I took on the job knowing what it entailed", but what *does* it entail exactly? do you have any 'powers' other than scheduling? what does your job description say about complaint procedures? when you were 'promoted' to this position, was extra time allotted for dealing with 'conflict management'? you need to flesh out what is actually a part of your job description and what you are taking on just because you "enjoy the challenge".
posted by tamarack at 7:53 PM on December 3, 2008

Well, first, you would need to figure out who is doing what.

If you have slackers, you need to listen to them in a way that helps you get them on the stick (or document how badly they're doing so they can be there less, or never.) And then you have to listen to the people who are doing the slacker's work in a way that makes them feel like you understand they're on top of things, and enlist them in getting the slackers on the stick without actually agreeing that the slackers are slacking because you can't bad-mouth employees to employees.

That's a challenge.

And as long as you run a coffee shop, if your shop has a tip jar could you put up a sign that tells me who gets the tips and how they are split?!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:21 PM on December 3, 2008

First can't mediate or resolve conflicts when you don't have the two parties together. You can certainly listen empathetically to each person individually but you won't be able to resolve things unless you can get folks together so THEY can hear each others.

So you need two pieces of advice. First on listening. It's important that people feel heard, and this means active listening. IN other words when someone is venting at you, just acknowledge what they are saying. You don't have to judge anything about what they are saying. Listen openly and with curiosity. Don't validate judgements, just hear them. It's helpful to restate things so that you have a clear understanding. Say things like "So if I hear you right your a saying XYZ, have I got that right?" There is some good stuff in Marshall Rosenberg's work on Nonviolent communication.

Sometimes active listening like this can help just diffuse someone's emotional core and everything turns out alraight. But in situations where two people have beef with one another, you cannot resolve the situation by either hearing them out OR fixing it. In this case, you have to bring the two parties together and have them hear from one another what is up. Basically what you are doing is mediating - stepping between them in a way that helps them find a solution with each other. If you are doing most of the conflict resolution in your shop by imposing solutions, you will probably find that these solutions aren't sustainable. Solutions that are co-created by the participants themselves are much more sustainable.

Mediation can be a highly technical skill, but in essence, you engage in listening to one each party and helping the other to reframe what is being said. When people understand each other, they can begin to work towards an agreement.

THis may be too technical or too detailed for what you need right now, but if you dive into these approaches and PRACTICE them, you will get better at them over time.

And for more information on your role in the organization, if you're inclined to read a useful business book on the subject, pick up a copy of Toxic Emotions At Work which spells out the crucil but informal role of the toxin handler in organizations - people who hold things together even though it's not in their job description.

Good luck.
posted by salishsea at 1:03 AM on December 4, 2008

Look, this is a coffee shop. Not disrespecting you or your job, but years of similar sorts of jobs as a student tell me that customer service jobs involving food are really boring. The only things that are interesting or motivating about these jobs are the quality of contact with coworkers and the convenience of shifts.

If you can't hire and fire, your job as a supervisor is:

- to make sure everyone comes in to work
- does their job as well as they can
- that the tills balance and that the doors are locked at night
- to fill in if anyone is off sick or just walks out
- to respond to customer complaints in a sympathetic way
- that there's no illegal or handbook-forbidden activity on the premises
- to report to higher ups if any of the above happens, so they can tell you what to do.

Really, that's it. You'll notice that "making sure my coworkers love each other and smile blissfully each moment they're at work" is specifically not on this list.

Good on ya for wanting your coworkers to get along and for a good work environment, but listening to people complain only goes so far. Saucysalt's right. If you give too much time to people who complain, you will piss off the people who just come in to work and get on with things.

There's a fine line between wanting to help in a situation and getting a bit of an ego stroke from being approached by coworkers who seem to think you can change what's bugging them about work. Do they know that the only thing you can do is help them blow off steam?

It's only fair that they should. The whole setup might be confusing them. If you are speaking to someone who's title indicates they have powers they don't, it's confusing and frustrating to everyone involved.

If they know that you can't actually change the situation, then really, they're just talking to you as someone who might have a bit more of a handle on the situation. Or they might just like you and respect your opinion, and that's just all it is. Don't make it more than that. It sounds like your boss doesn't mean for you to take it on more than that, either.
posted by Grrlscout at 4:17 AM on December 4, 2008

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