Incorporating professional coaching and conflict management competencies in the Scrum Master role.

The Often Forgotten Scrum Master Competencies

Scrum Master, an entry-level role in modern organizational development

Dear Scrum Masters, have you ever considered yourselves as organizational developers? For a long time, I didn’t see myself from such a perspective. From my own experience, I know, it’s easy to be the Scrum (and SAFe) expert: showing teams how to do Estimation Poker, finishing a Sprint in Jira, managing dependencies with other teams or preparing a big room planning (aka PI Planning). What’s the impact of operating from such a perspective? Well, at least in my case, a lot of potentials was wasted.

So, what do I need to become aware of to be more effective as a Scrum Master? What skills and competencies are relevant from an organisation development point-of-view? What attitude serves best my team?

In this blog post, I’m going to uncover the opportunities that await you, if you decide to change your mind-model of a Scrum Master. To make the topic more tangible for the reader, the blog post follows a two-day workshop that Stefanie Gfeller, Franziska Espinoza and I co-created for a Scrum Master team at Swisscom.

Creating a Safe Space

A safe space is a place intended to be free of bias, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.

It is vital for a creative and productive work environment and especially for team and organizational development activities to work on a common safe space. A safe space is a place intended to be free of bias, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations. If a group collectively works on creating such a safe space together, it creates a healthy environment, where everyone can contribute, fail, be authentic and courageous; or in other words, it creates the condition that enables teams to fully embrace the Scrum values (focus, openness, courage, commitment, and respect).

Some of the basic building blocks of a safe space are listening, speaking in front of the group, appreciation and establishing transparency about expectations and assumptions.

The double barometer gives the possibility to answer the negative and positive side of a question. In this example, we used the question about the perceived safety in the group.

In our workshop, we used multiple tools to achieve that purpose: first, a Butterfly Check-In to engage everyone from the get-go and to give all participants the space to speak in front of the whole group. Then, we agreed upon Working Agreements (i.e. confidentiality, defer judgment, self-responsibility) to assure that we all adhere to the same co-working principles.

Using Appreciative Interviews (“Tell a story of a situation where you have worked with others on a conflict in a team and you are proud of what you have achieved. What is your story and what has made success possible? “) we practiced deep listening and speaking what has meaning. And last, a two-dimensional Safety Check (“How safe do you feel?” and “How unsafe do you feel?”) that gave the possibility to answer the negative and positive side of a question and thus allowed the duality of the workshop being safe and unsafe at the same time.

The impact on the group was noticeable: people started sharing stories that had meaning and heart, the conversations were challenging and still respectful and it was a courageous space, where one could experiment, be bold and step outside of their comfort zone.

Creating Self-Awareness

… we usually tend to jump to a conclusion as we usually do not distinguish between what we observe and what we conclude …

Beside having an understanding of the environment as an organisational developer you need to have conscious knowledge of your belief-system, the basic assumptions you hold about yourself, others and the world, your emotions and what triggers them in order to be effective in receiving and processing the information sent by the team and create plausible hypotheses about what’s going on. This is especially helpful during conflicts.

To explore the depths of interpersonal dynamics, we found the rank concept by Arnold Mindell especially helpful. The concept supports in exploring a process, that usually happens in seconds between people and where they feel more or less powerful in any given situation at any particular moment. Rank differences and unconsciousness or misuse of rank is behind all social situations and contributes to all conflicts. Having awareness of your own rank helps you to understand certain dynamics in everyday life. Besides, we usually tend to jump to a conclusion as we usually do not distinguish between what we observe and what we conclude based on our mind-models and past experiences.

Becoming conscious about the split-second decisions by giving each other feedback about the perceived rank.

In the workshop, we invited the participants to become conscious of these split-second decisions by giving each other feedback about the perceived rank. Then, we practiced distinguishing between perception and interpretation in a one-on-one setting using the three statements “Something I notice about you is…”, “Right now, I sense …” (with closed eyes) and “Right now, I want to …” based on the awareness wheel by Sherod and Phyllis Miller.

Professional Coaching Essentials

People are naturally, creative, resourceful and whole.

As an organisational developer, you are working with a coaching mindset: you don’t have to fix people, you don’t have to solve their problems. You create a space where people feel comfortable to speak out what they really think and where they, as individuals and teams, can tap more of their potential. And as already mentioned, the first thing you need to create is a safe space. After that, professional coaching is all about listening, being curious, asking powerful questions and articulating what you perceive (don’t make interpretations — people are experts of their life).

In the workshop, we used a slightly adapted version of Helping Heuristics to introduce professional coaching competencies. We split up in triads (coach, coachee, observer) and brought together different professional coaching skills and principles that we practiced all morning. The coach focused during two minute slots on a single coaching skill: first, quietly listening for new patters, then exploring by asking open-ended questions (“What’s the challenge here for you?”, “What do you want?”, “What else?”, “Why is it important to you?”, …), followed by offering observations (“I noticed/heard/felt …”) and last on co-creating something new with the client (“Yes, and …”). During the debriefing, everyone got the opportunity to give feedback to the coach.

Triad coaching using the Liberating Structure Helping Heuristics.

In the beginning, it was quite challenging for most participants to stay away from problem-solving, giving advice or speculating about the cause. There was a lot of self-management needed in order to overcome that feeling of not being useful. Besides that, the coaches were able to transition from listening to confirm existing patters to a more generative way of listening (connecting with something that is currently emerging) after some practice rounds.

Conflict Awareness

The first and maybe most important responsibility in your role as Scrum Master is to recognize conflicts and make them visible, as early as possible.

Another essential competence for Scrum Masters, who want to continue to accompany their teams in their development, is conflict awareness. Awareness not only about the team dynamics but also your personal conflict behavior. Besides that, training the skills to lead effective conversations using nonviolent communication is crucial for having open and honest conversations in cases of conflict. The first and maybe most important responsibility in your role as Scrum Master is to recognize conflicts and make them visible, as early as possible. If you defuse conflicts in early stages you can use the available potential in a constructive way. Be conscious of your conflict management skills and know when to ask for help.

Systemic constellation of a conflict case as a source of information.

Experiencing a systemic constellation was new for almost all participants. An open mind was needed to appreciate the information that was gathered during the constellation. And using nonviolent communication language patterns proved to be quite challenging but with the help of all the participants acting as coaches, it notably shifted the energy. After a few training rounds, the interlocutor felt understood and could accept the feedback. The coaches were also satisfied and the person trying it out felt well equipped for his real conversation.

New Unique Opportunities!

Does it end here? No, definitely not! And yet, being equipped with a basic understanding of how to create a safe space, creating self-awareness, some essential professional coaching stances and conflict management competencies, the Scrum Master role can be seen as an entry-role into a modern team and organisational development. In my opinion, this offers unique opportunities:

  • it opens up a new interesting learning path (organisational development)
  • being more effective as a Scrum Master by observing your team (and organisation) through a systemic lens and designing interventions based on hypotheses
  • enhancing your employability by acquiring new multi-purpose competences

The Key Insights

  • A safe space is a prerequisite for both effective coaching and addressing conflicts
  • Self-awareness is being conscious about your behavior and the reason behind it, your reaction to certain situations and emotion
  • Practice deep listening; don’t listen to confirm what you already know — listen for what’s emerging
  • Be curious: use open-ended questions to initiate introspection
  • The responsibility of the Scrum Master is to make conflicts visible, leverage conflicts in early stages in a productive way and know when to ask for help


In this blog post, I’ve described how you can become more effective as a Scrum Master by incorporating both professional coaching and conflict management competencies. Why don’t you consciously create a safe space in your next Retrospective? Why don’t you offer your teams regular coaching sessions where you just listen and ask open questions? Why don’t you address the elephant in your next Sprint Planning? What other possibilities do you see?

Interested in learning more about conflict management? Let’s meet at the 1-day workshop about conflicts and Liberating Structures hosted by The Liberators in Amsterdam on November 22nd, 2019. Wanna learn more about integrating your Scrum Master role with professional coaching? I’m a passionate Co-Active coach — let’s connect on LinkedIn and start a conversation!

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

Thanks to Barry Overeem

Christian Hofstetter

Written by

Inspiring people is my passion! I’m a passionate Scrum Master, Agile Coach and Facilitator who brings positive attitude, good practices and an agile mindset.

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

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