Settle disputes in your team with these simple questions

Your employees are grumbling at each other? Instead of concentrating on their work, office neighbours are constantly wasting time with petty squabbles? With these questions you help to solve conflicts quickly and sustainably.

Emotions boil up quickly when the company is in a shambles. Instead of keeping a cool head, we throw ourselves at the supposed opponent, get loud, say things we regret later. It’s like “Let’s get him with a roar.” This strategy may provide you with short-term relief, because the accumulated anger can be released. It is not sustainable.

But how can you do it better? How do you as a boss react wisely and calmly in hairy conflict situations? By asking questions. As simple and banal as this strategy sounds: Questions can really be a kind of miracle cure to solve conflicts. By asking questions, you help your employees to break out of old habits and discover new solutions.

Why questions are important

Most managers underestimate the power of questions. They send instead: feedback, recommendations, tips, orders. Especially in conflicts we tend to shower the other person with our feedback. We talk and talk – and (almost) nothing gets through.

When you ask your employees a question, you automatically take on a different role, that of an open, interested listener. They experience something new, they understand, they change their perspective. Conflicts cannot be solved without listening.

By asking questions, for example, you uncover the “problem behind a problem”: Often a conflict is ignited by a small thing: the blinds that a colleague always wants to lower and the person sitting next to him or her to open. The dirty coffee cups in the kitchen. In fact, there is usually something completely different behind such disputes: violated values, insults or, for example, fear of loss because an employee fears that the new office neighbour will not only take away the daylight but also his previous position in the team. Only if you go into the matter in a targeted manner will you find out what a dispute is really about.

With these questions you can find out what the actual problem is

  • What annoys you about the behaviour of colleague Müller?
  • When exactly did the situation arise?
  • What consequences did that have for you?
  • What have you done so far?

With these questions you ask employees to change their perspective

Most conflicts can be resolved if the parties to the dispute adopt a different perspective to their own. From the perspective of a colleague, customer or boss, the world suddenly looks very different. This insight is the first step towards compromise.

  • How would you act in my place?
  • What would the colleague in the neighbouring office think if he saw you arguing?
  • What kind of difficulties does the argument cause for our client?
  • What would Max Müller want from you?

These questions help with hardened fronts

And when the fronts are so hardened that no one wants to move? Hypothetical questions will help. For example:

  • How would you tackle the problem if money and space were no object?
  • What would have to happen for you to look forward to each other in the morning?
  • What would you do if you could decide all by yourself?

Especially for people with a sense of humour, an extreme, almost comic exaggeration can make the knot burst. Paradoxical questions usually create a surprise effect that is so astounding that a conflict suddenly seems less sharp and serious. Perhaps you are familiar with the phenomenon: Sometimes we can react quite differently than usual when we are extremely surprised.

For this effect, use questions like:

  • What would you have to do to drive Max crazy?
  • How could you argue even more with Max Müller?
  • How would you have to behave to keep your problem?

Follow these basic rules

If you want to resolve conflicts with questions, you should follow these important principles:

  • What, how, who, when? Unlike closed questions, which can be answered with no or yes, open questions help to fathom a problem. So rather than asking “Are you angry with Tom?” you should go for “Why are you angry with Tom?”
  • Stay tuned: If you don’t get a satisfactory answer after the first question, go back to it. For example, formulate the question differently. The core of a conflict is often hidden under many layers of secondary animosities. Think of an onion that you have to skin layer by layer before exposing the core.
  • Take breaks: When you ask a question, the other person needs a moment to think about it. Give him that time – even if it’s hard.