When (and how) should I step in to break up a fight?

by Sam on July 8, 2009

Analysis: When you realize that the only chance for resolution of conflict is to step in between others, don’t hesitate. With the tools below you’ll do as good a job as anyone could. And even if you don’t hit a home run—singles and doubles are more likely—you will nearly always win the game.

Here’s why. Left untreated, the antagonism you’re dealing with is going to resolve itself in some way in the future. Eventually, one person will give in, one person will quit, one person will be fired, or the combatants be separated in some way That resolution could be months or years away. For a long time it’s going to be painful for the antagonists, painful for others around them, painful for the company, and painful for you. Here’s a guarantee that history tells me I can extend to you. When you confront conflict between others somehow the pain period gets shortened, and what was going to happen months down the road happens, instead, in weeks.

Answer: So get started on pain-period reduction—if not resolution. Here is one of my favorite facilitation approaches. In this “Reconciliation Interview” you’ll ask the same question of each person before moving on to the next question.

This is important! I do one of two things with their answers: (1) paraphrase each answer to ensure it was heard identically by the listener and me or most powerfully (2) insist that each person paraphrase to the other’s satisfaction what he/she heard before earning the right to either comment on the answer or respond to the next question.

I never apply all 20 of these questions. A few of my personal favorites are starred (*). In like manner, choose your own, using those comfortable for you and appropriate to the situation.

This three-way meeting happens only after I’ve met separately with each person to get a sense of which questions and approach will work best. You can also apply these ideas to a disagreement that you may be in yourself with someone. (The sample interview here is with a fictitious Ray and Ron.)

Warm up

1.   What’s good about Ray/Ron? (These are two questions–one for each person–as are the questions that follow.)

2.   To the extent that you have been able to call him a trusted coworker at any time in the past, how has he demonstrated that?

3.   What do you like most about the way he does his job?

4.   Of all the contributions he has made to ACME, which do you appreciate the most?*

5.   Of what value would it be to ACME for the two of you to be unified team members that don’t always agree, but always collaborate and cooperate?*


6.   In any relationship that grows out of kilter, each person usually sees the other person as about 90% at fault, and accepts little of the responsibility for what’s going on. Let’s assume for just a minute that each of you bears 50% of the responsibility for this relationship not being what it could be, describe your 50%.*

7.   How accurate has Ron/Ray been in describing his 50%? What one thing has he missed?*

8.   What are you doing, not doing, saying, believing, reacting to, not letting go of, or harboring that contributes to where we are?

9.   If you could go back in time and change one thing in your 50% what would that be?*

10.  A lack of mutual trust and respect is most often at the root of broken relationships; talk about this factor between the two of you.

Toward Resolution

11.  What do you hear Ray/Ron saying he needs from you in order for the two of you to become a team? (For a non-antagonistic relationship, I may skip many of the questions above and start here.)*

12.  Did Ron/Ray describe your needs accurately? What would you add?*

Commitment to Resolution (“Vows”)

13.  What are you willing to vow to Ray/Ron in terms of changed behavior to meet his needs?*

14.  If there’s one thing that may make it difficult for you to fulfill your vow, what is it?*

15.  How can I help each of you fulfill your vows?

16.  Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.” What one new level of thinking will you take into the future about this relationship?

Follow Up/Accountability
(In three to four weeks and, again, three to four months later)

17.  How well is Ray/Ron fulfilling each of his vows?*

18.  In what way(s) is your collaboration better? Congratulations!!!!*

19.  In what way(s) is your collaboration worse? What did each of you do or not do that contributed to the lack of progress in these areas?*

20.  Thank you for what each of you has done to get us to this degree of improvement.* (If there’s been no improvement, it may be time to step in and dictate the solution.)

What could keep this approach from working? The usual dirty dozen: fear, depression, uncontrolled anger, malice, evil, malaise, intimidation, hubris, dishonesty, prejudice, denial, and self-righteousness. So then what chance is there of success? It depends on how you define that word. Your odds of turning two fierce opponents into hugging buddies are too long to bet on. So, why then would you attempt facilitation? For three reasons. First, it may be a duty of your leadership role. Second, the disagreement may not have yet transformed into hardened antagonism. Third, even if it has, your intervention will put antagonists on notice and will almost certainly cause some betterment, although probably not a love fest.

Aphorism: As a general rule, if you want to get at the truth–hear both sides and believe neither. ~Josh Billings

Approaching: Is there a “coming attraction” on this list that you can’t wait for? Shoot me an email for a sneak preview.

7/15: What are the most inspiring thoughts about leadership?
7/22: How can I do a better job of delivering criticism?
7/29: Who, me–a praise miser?
8/5: How can I use praise more effectively to motivate others?
8/12: Why do many performance appraisal systems fail to improve performance?
8/19: What role do manners and civility play in the workplace?
8/26: How can I wow the audience when I make a formal presentation?
9/2: What are some good ways to organize my thoughts for a presentation?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at sam@asksamdeep.com. He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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