During the question and answer section of a speech I gave last week, someone posed a question that I think is top of mind for many people: if two of my teammates are fighting, should I get involved? How would you answer?
Do you subscribe to the “none of my business” approach and butt out if the dispute has nothing to do with you? I can see where that logic comes from. Unfortunately, I also see where it leads to.
When two people are embroiled in a dispute, they lose their objectivity and become emotionally involved. That makes it very difficult to see a path to resolution. They are probably on a downward spiral. You, on the other hand, have safe distance from the issue and are in a great position to get things back on a positive trajectory.
This is particularly true if the fight is lopsided and one person is the aggressor and the other is the victim. Most think that bullying is simply about the strong exerting power over the weak, but bullying is a social dynamic where the bully seeks status in the eyes of those watching. In the majority of cases, if a witness tells the bully to stop, the incident ends almost immediately.
Now imagine you’re sitting in a team meeting. The notorious bully on your team starts going after someone. He lashes out, running through a litany of reasons why the target of the attack is to blame. The victim is overwhelmed and can’t muster a cogent argument to counter the bully. You, and everyone else in the room, just watch squeamishly as the lopsided debate devolves into an all-out attack.
Who, in this scenario, has the most power to stop the unhealthy exchange? It’s not the bully. Although you’d hope that the bully would have the self-awareness and self-control to pull back, it’s highly unlikely. What about the victim, can’t he just stick up for himself? I doubt it. The victim is probably feeling embarrassed, angry, and tongue-tied. And frankly, attempts by the victim to defend himself will only escalate the conflict because the bully can’t be seen to be outdone.
It’s not the bully who is motivated to stop the fight. And it’s not the victim who has got the wherewithal. You’re the one with the power. You aren’t seeing red like the bully. You aren’t on your back foot like the victim. You’re in a great position to completely change the dynamic.
Use an escalating approach starting with relatively innocuous statements and dial it up if you need to.
Call out the behavior
Ideally, just holding up a mirror to the bad behavior will start to move it in the right direction. Be as objective as you can be and avoid passing judgment at first. See if this changes the nature of the debate.
“Sam, you are yelling.”
“Sam, Frank hasn’t had an opportunity to respond to your concerns.”
“Frank, you haven’t shared your version of the events.”
Steer with questions
If you need to go a little further to get the conversation back on track, try using questions. That will pull the aggressor out of attack mode and cause him to reflect. Reflection counteracts aggression. For the victim, it will provide a lifeline by helping him figure out constructive ways to move the discussion along.
“Sam, what do you think is missing from the plan?”
“What would a good solution need to include?”
“What are you worried about if we go ahead with this approach?”
“Frank, how does the plan address Sam’s concerns?”
“What else could be done to reflect what Sam is saying?”
Voice your displeasure
If your attempts to improve the tone of the conversation aren’t working, you might need to stop being suggestive and start being assertive. If you’re not the team leader, you are probably safer speaking for yourself rather than trying to lay down the law.
“The intensity of this discussion is not helping us resolve the issue. Can we take a breath and start again?”
“We all want to figure this out but no one can get a word in edgewise. Can we each weigh in on how we’re thinking about this?”
“This is an issue for the whole team, it’s not just Frank’s responsibility. We all need to be working this out.”
So, should you get involved when two of your teammates are locked in an unproductive conflict—yes! That doesn’t mean you need to immediately jump in the middle and start refereeing. But it does mean that you are just as accountable for the quality of your team dynamic as the two people engaged in the argument. Because you’re not wrapped up in the argument, because your brain is still in thinking mode, you are in the perfect position to get the conversation back on track.