Workplace Conflict Resolution: Hanne Wulp Of Communication Wise On How Team Leaders Can Create The Right Environment To Resolve Conflicts
Acknowledge that everyone sees the world through their own personal lenses. You and I do too. This makes a lot of areas grey, instead of black or white (good or bad, right or wrong). Conflict will come up, it’s inevitable in a world where everyone’s viewpoints are subjective.
An important component of leadership is conflict resolution. Why is conflict resolution so important? How can leaders effectively incorporate conflict resolution into their work culture? In this interview series called “Workplace Conflict Resolution: How Team Leaders Can Create The Right Environment To Resolve Conflicts,” we are talking to business leaders who can share insights and anecdotes from their experience about how to implement Conflict Resolution at work. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Hanne Wulp.
Hanne Wulp is the owner of Communication Wise and specializes in training executive teams and other leaders, and coaching individuals in leadership communication & conflict resolution skills. With a background in litigating conflicts as an attorney, mediation, and facilitating tense, multifaceted interpersonal issues, she embodies de-escalation and conflict resolution skills. She effectively guides participants to open themselves up to bigger perspectives, and to use conflict resolution skills to solve their own issues. She believes in empowerment, and with that taking responsibility, and ultimately creating harmony.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ve always been interested in people. Why we do things, what influences us, how we influence each other, and especially how we can better ourselves — and help others do the same. I studied law and became a lawyer. I litigated for 9 years for my clients. During that time, I learned a lot about people — how we act when we feel we are about to lose everything, or in fact, lose everything that’s dear to us: whether that’s children, homes, relationships, fortunes, or all of the above.
I’ve often met, and interacted, with people at their worst. People breaking down emotionally, becoming (temporarily) clingy, forceful, violent, deceitful, or plain uncooperative. I’ve learned this: a person not doing well is likely to be viewed as unlikeable (annoying) to others. Having worked with people experiencing and expressing much resistance, has only made me believe stronger in true empowerment. In guiding them to expand their current view(points) to something more desirable, and then go from there.
I wanted to bring out people’s awareness of their contribution to their problems, and practice skills with them, so they can work through their own issues — ultimately with their counterparts, and find solutions/paths forward that work for all involved. But as an attorney, my hands were tied. “What can YOU do differently?” is not even an appropriate question in most situations during a legal procedure. I was hired to fight for them on their case within the legal system.
So, I started looking for ways to help clients that weren’t already involved in the inflexible, slow, and expensive legal system. I became a mediator, and a pre-hearing facilitator. It opened my eyes to more options/possibilities. I left the courthouse as my workplace. I had learned so much that I felt confident I could add more value outside of the legal world. I became a team trainer in Leadership Communication & Conflict Resolution Skills, and an individual coach/consultant. Now, using a soft approach, and being genuinely caring, I help others gain bigger perspectives, gain influence, and tackle (inter)personal conflicts by empowering them with insights and skills.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve been part of many heated, tense, but also quiet, and arduous meetings. I’ve had security guards in my pre-hearing facilitation room to keep participants from going at each other’s throats (literally). I’ve had a spouse run out of the law office building during a divorce mediation after office hours, which left me with the remaining spouse, and a few urgent questions about how to handle safety…I’ve sat in meetings during which no one wanted to be the first one to speak, so even after multiple friendly nudges from my side, we still sat in silence for minutes on end.
I’ve had meetings with a wide range of clients, from the top 1% influential, and financially wealthy, to homeless, incarcerated, addicted participants during pre-hearing facilitations. I’ve done de-escalation trainings with police officers, but also (peer) mediation trainings with elementary school children, teachers, professors, social workers, and attorneys. It’s been quite a ride!
Custody disputes have taught me a lot about how important creating and maintaining mutual trust is. There are no shortcuts to building trust, but there are different ways to create (a beginning of) trust. One of them is becoming genuinely interested in the other person’s world, and finding mutual interests, something you and the other person care about. It can be anything. A hobby, an occupation, a thing, an interest, a concern, a wish, or a goal. Another way is to show the other person you keep your end of the deal — executing the things you’ve committed to.
Maybe not the most dramatic story, but a common situation I learned much from, was the following: During a custody discussion between two parents, the mother seemed to be unwilling to grant the father any access to their children. I tried different angles to help the mother open up her perspectives to get to her underlying interests. Simultaneously, I tried to keep the father in a patient and understanding mindset. But it was hard. The longer they were talking, the further they seemed to drift away from possible options and opportunities.
We took a break.
I held private meetings with both parents and asked them what — if anything was possible — living a good life would look like for them. During the private conversations, it turned out they wanted similar outcomes: a stable life and being involved in raising their children. But they didn’t trust each other. When we came back, we started with a theme: ‘Commitment to finding ways to live a stable life while raising our children’. Every time one of them went astray from the theme, I reminded them of our topic. And they eventually figured out an agreement that worked for both. Obviously, the execution would start when they’d leave my room and would have to keep themselves to their commitments. But at least they had made a true shift in their minds that they would both live by/ stick to their agreement. And that’s crucial.
When I now guide teams and individuals toward better teamwork/relationships, I start with individual interviews (‘private meetings’) to figure out their ‘theme’. I ask questions, such as: what is important to you? What do you care about? What behaviors trigger you?
And then in the group sessions, we discuss insights and practice skills to work collaboratively on their mutual goals/values. For example, we play roleplays in which we have to move through opposing viewpoints/conflicts. In general, it isn’t easy to talk about a topic that you disagree on, and that matters to you both: emotions easily take over. A recurring roleplay is: You have repeatedly asked your team member to do something, but they won’t perform the action (well). Which questions do you ask to get to the bottom of the issue? How do you make it safe for the team member to be honest about why they think they are underperforming?
Most skills are based on creating and recreating conversational safety. Conversational safety will lead to honesty and willingness to understand each other. Even when the topic is uncomfortable, opinions differ, and the stakes are high.
This is important, especially when hierarchy/positions of power play a role in the relationship. In a position of power, one must be extra vigilant of conversational safety. Others won’t be as willing to speak up. They’ll be more likely to hide mistakes, won’t share their opinions on relevant topics, and avoid certain difficult conversations all the way. Which ultimately leads to ineffectiveness. A strong & healthy organization (or any group of people, such as a family/community) needs a strong & healthy information/communication flow to thrive.
My executive clients appreciate the insights we discuss, and the CAN DO approach. By playing both roles during roleplays, they’ll get to experience what it feels like to be (dis)honest to a person of authority, and get to practice conversational safety skills.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
One of my favorites is: “Change is the only constant”.
Most of us aren’t too crazy about change — it means (partly) giving up the comfort of what we already know to work well. In fact, humans fear change so much that they would rather hold on to situations that aren’t great, but are at least known, than try out something new. But life is constantly changing, so catching up to, and appreciating changes is a continuously evolving skill.
I used to fear change as well. Big changes, like immigrating from The Netherlands to the US, divorcing the father of my children, and starting my own business, have taught me to be less afraid of changes and their outcomes. I still value stability, harmony, and balance, but I’m now able to find that more in myself. I’ve learned to observe my thoughts and feelings more, and by acknowledging those and not holding on to them as much, I’ve been able to catch up to changes more easily. And with that, I’ve been able to choose next steps/tweaks to my current situation more deliberately/consciously.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company is based on my curiosity and love for life, combined with practicality and experience. That makes me well-equipped to deliver what I promise.
I listen, create a greater mutual understanding, and teach and practice skills with my clients.
Now, I will also acknowledge that I mess up myself sometimes. I get impatient with clients that aren’t paying attention, frustrated with my children interrupting my creative flow, and anxious when I don’t receive responses from (prospective) clients: Am I not doing the right thing? Do I not have good timing? Should I be or do better? But I also know: there’s nothing wrong with my clients, my children, or me: it’s part of the human experience. We are where we are and that’s ok. I calm down and move on.
A “Yay! Success!” story:
This morning I coached a manager who wants to move up the hierarchical ladder to that of a director. He leads quite a few team members currently. During the first session, he told me he thinks he’s ready, and that there is nothing more to learn for him regarding leadership communication. However, the CEO and director of HR hired me to help him get more refined in leading others. So, during the second session today, I did a roleplay with him and acted as a disgruntled direct report, who was walking around with an issue that I didn’t voluntarily share with him. The manager started out asking a somewhat caring question, but quickly determined I just had to fix my own issues, and shape up. I made him ask more questions and stick to the conversation longer. When we debriefed after the roleplay, he saw what he had not seen before: sometimes the solution is to pause, be caring, and take time to try to understand the person in front of us. So that they do fix their own issues. But the step of pausing and active listening is crucial to the other person moving on.
An “Oops, I messed up” story:
Also, this morning, I was locked out of my Amazon account. I called the customer service department, and had to work with someone whose knowledge of the English language didn’t seem to reach much reach further than the security questions he was producing. He asked questions, but simply didn’t seem to understand my responses. The conversation took at least 20 minutes, and I felt myself getting more and more frustrated every time he asked the same question. When I tried to explain my issue with the conversation, he just repeated his question. He also stayed calm. I asked for alternative ways to figure this out, but he didn’t understand that either. He finally concluded: I had failed the security test and gave me one solution: open a new account. I certainly didn’t want to do that, so I called again, was answered by a very helpful, quick, and able service representative, and my problem was solved within 5 minutes.
Sometimes it takes a while for us to process: this is not working, what are my options? Do I have to find another way, better questions, or use more skills with this person to get what I need? Or do I have to give up on this relationship/commitment? What are my options/opportunities? During this process, we most likely experience frustration at some point. And that’s ok.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Being observant, and an active listener. By pausing my own needs (financial, success, recognition, attention, etc.), I can truly listen to my (prospective) client and step into their world.
- Being courageous. There are always new things to learn, ego flare-ups to swallow, and fears of new challenges to overcome. By pushing myself to be courageous, I take on those new challenges. Whether that is learning a new skill, reaching out to someone influential or new, or reaching out for help.
- Being patient. When I’m clear on an opportunity to jump in to help/get hired for a project, but my (prospective) client isn’t, I’ll be patient. I believe that good (and bad) timing has many consequences. Being pushy won’t lead to the same results, because even when the client ‘bites’, they weren’t ready and won’t get the results they could have had when they would have been ready. I observed this during a training I was a participant. Even though most lessons were great, the majority of the participants weren’t ready and became increasingly resistant. They ended up concluding there had been false advertisements and that they hadn’t gotten the results they’d been promised. In my opinion, the timing just wasn’t right. The salesperson had been too pushy (as she had been with me).
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
Every decision/choice is a trade-off: by saying yes to one thing, we say no to many other paths that could have worked out well also. I worked in the non-profit world for a while and felt comfortable. The organizations I worked for were close by geographically, and everyone always seemed to have time for each other. During the pandemic, I officially started Communication Wise and decided to go back into the corporate world. That world moves faster. Commitments are changed last minute, and people don’t have as much time to truly hash out issues, and find the best routes to take before actions are taken. With the skills I teach, I think I’m able to make a bigger difference in this faster-moving world. And the compensation is worth the inconvenience for me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s start with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. What does Conflict Resolution mean?
Conflict Resolution means:
- Collaboratively +
- finding solutions +
- to mutual issues +
- that satisfies everyone’s most important needs/concerns.
This doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they wanted at beginning of the conflict resolution process. It means that everyone can live with the outcome, because the parties involved have been figuring out mutually satisfying/ workable solutions based on their underlying needs and concerns.
What are some common misunderstandings about Conflict Resolution that are important to clear up?
- Screaming louder/ repeating oneself will lead to positive results. It’s a short-term solution for the loud person/party, but ultimately just created resistance.
- Becoming more convicted of one’s righteousness will lead to clarity and therefore solutions. It will get you stuck in your own beliefs — how is that working out for you? How healthy and strong are your relationships? How happy are you?
- Force is powerful — it can be, but is at most a short-term solution.
- Giving in is good — it only is, when you don’t care about your goal, or you are truly outnumbered and will have to adjust your expectations.
- Avoiding ‘hot topics’ will lead to better relationships. It won’t, but it can be a helpful strategy when you need time to cool off, or the situation has changed, and the topic doesn’t mean much to you anymore.
- Collaborating is easy. It’s not: it takes time and energy to be, and stay willing to work things out. It also requires creativity to think of out-of-the-box options/opportunities/ workable solutions.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to clearly express this. Can you please explain why it is so important for leaders to learn and deploy conflict resolution techniques?
It is the only way to create, and maintain healthy, and strong relationships (mutual trust and respect), and with that a healthy and strong information and communication flow. Conflict will happen, it’s a given. We just don’t always want, or value, the same thing/goal. Knowing how to move through conflict, and using these skills, are crucial for healthy teams/ communities.
On the flip side, what happens to a work culture when there is not an effective way of resolving conflict? How does it impact employees?
It will ultimately lead to resistance, low morale, inefficiency, and weakened company results. It impacts employees in different ways. It could lead to a popularity contest atmosphere, working hard to become the boss’s favorite instead of focusing on job performance, pure competition, a culture of dishonesty and backstabbing, uncertainty, frustration, and fear.
Can you provide examples of how effective conflict resolution has led to increased team performance, collaboration, or innovation within your organization?
We talk things out and try to have good timing. We check whether someone is ready to have a difficult/tricky conversation. We try to avoid unwelcome surprises, and be honest. We restore safety when the other shows signs of defensiveness. And when things go south, because working out differences doesn’t always succeed on the first try, we pause, and continue at a better time.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Ways Every Team Leader Can Create The Right Environment To Resolve Conflicts”? If you can, please share specific examples of a workplace conflict you’ve encountered, and how you applied conflict resolution techniques to address it.
1 . Genuinely care about your people. When your team(s) know(s) you care about them and their goals, they are willing to try to understand you when there are opposing/ conflicting wishes, or miscommunication.
2 . Make it safe for everyone, but especially those in lower ranks, to speak up when there is a misunderstanding, or disagreement. You want a strong information/communication flow throughout the company, and you can only create that when you make it safe for others to share their opinions/viewpoints.
3 . Acknowledge that everyone sees the world through their own personal lenses. You and I do too. This makes a lot of areas grey, instead of black or white (good or bad, right or wrong). Conflict will come up, it’s inevitable in a world where everyone’s viewpoints are subjective.
4 . Set clear boundaries and expectations, and be fair about them. Some people will be more likeable/agreeable than others. But variety/diversity of opinions will ultimately lead to stronger, more robust outcomes.
5 . Learn and apply conflict resolution skills, and have your (fellow) leaders do the same. Recognize when you’ve gone from learning/trying to understand, to being right, win, or punish. Recognize physical signs of stress and apply skills to de-escalate. Learn and apply skills to help de-escalate another person. We won’t become perfect at all times, but we can always work on becoming better. The results are so worth it: healthy, strong relationships will determine the ultimate effectiveness/success of organizations in the long run.
In your experience, what are the most common sources of conflict within a team, and how do you proactively address these potential issues before they escalate?
People commonly think they don’t like another person because of their (different) personality: they get along with person X because they feel related to how they see that person’s identity/personality. They don’t get along with person Y because they are so ‘different’. What they don’t realize, is how they can become fully at peace with person Y when they learn skills to view them differently, to become curious about them, get to know them, and eventually build trust/ a healthy, strong relationship with that person.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m going to continue on my path to bring out more peace, happiness, fun/excitement, and skills in people, so that they’ll be better friends, colleagues, and team/ community members.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.
While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.