The Art of Détente

by Amy Boone Thompson on Mar 01, 2007

How to handle the inevitable conflicts, changes and difficulties that arise when dealing with your staff and members.

Up until this issue, the series Fitness Management 101 has focused primarily on how you, as a new fitness manager, need to make a good first impression on staff and members; learn the essential business practices of your facility and the needs of your department; calculate your objectives as a manager; and create a detailed action plan to accomplish your goals.

Now our focus shifts to the kinds of skills and strategies that fitness managers need to deal with people conflicts, from handling difficult conversations to helping your team adjust to expected and unforeseen changes. Typically, these skills are not addressed during any management training, yet you will be expected to successfully navigate these rough waters in order to stay afloat as a fitness manager. In fact, knowing how to handle such conflicts may be the very thing that separates a middling manager from one who is outstanding!

Strategies for Handling Conflicts

As a manager, you will be faced with many difficult situations in which you will be expected to know what to say and how to provide a solution. These situations will come up with employees, members, colleagues and even your supervisor. Negotiating through these difficult situations will require patience, empathy and the ability to listen without becoming defensive.

When confronted with a situation that requires your interference, use these skills to cut through the hyperbole and emotions to find the best viable solution for all parties involved.

Step 1: Listen to Understand

Your first job as a manager when a member or employee is sharing the details of a conflict is to listen in order to understand all the forces at play. While this sounds simple, it is a skill that often needs honing.

Learn to listen without interrupting, without first preparing your response and without having a preconceived judgment. Make it a point not to interrupt, but to let the person explain his or her perspective and version of the events that led up to the conflict. Constructive listening skills require that you establish eye contact with the person speaking; provide a private setting to avoid distractions; show that you are relaxed and open to the discussion in terms of your own body positioning; and use gestures and language to let the person know you are following along word by word. Even when talking over the phone, you should resist the temptation to let your eyes and mind wander and instead stay present and focused on the conversation.

Step 2: Don’t Take It Personally

One of the most challenging aspects of communicating as a manager is not to take offense at the other person’s comments. Sometimes, the details being shared will involve a valuable member of your team or may even involve you directly. Once a manager becomes offended, both parties will become defensive, and the entire conversation will turn unproductive and snowball into something that requires another level of mediation. That’s why it is vital that you always remain objective and calm—even if you feel that some of the details have been exaggerated or overlooked.

Keep in mind that there is usually no one right or wrong version of an event; rather, there will be (at least) two different perceptions of what transpired. Appearing defensive (even if it is coming from a place of loyalty to your club or other employees) prevents managers from seeing and thinking clearly to work through a conflict. Instead, it just adds fuel to the fire and keeps those dangerous embers smoldering. By remaining objective, you will learn more about the situation at hand and how you can grow from this example and improve.

Step 3: Ask Open-Ended Questions

After the person has shared his or her version of the events leading up to the conflict—but before you reach any decision about the outcome—take the time to ask some simple but salient open-ended questions. Even if you think that you know what has transpired, it is important to ask questions in order to better understand the situation. This is particularly true if the other person has conveniently withheld critical details that you may or may not already know about.

This is your opportunity to fill in any details in a nonconfrontational manner. This technique also puts the person at ease and provides an opportunity to “vent,” which is often what employees and members really want from you in the first place. Again, listen intently to all responses to your open-ended questions before formulating a final decision.

Step 4: Repeat Back to Me

Another valuable skill to add to your communication toolbox is to repeat back what you heard the other person say. Summarize the events that the person shared with you as they relate to this situation. Although this may seem repetitive and unnecessary, more often than not you’ll clear up any confusion that may still remain in your own mind, while reassuring the other person that you listened intently to exactly what was said.

It is also a good practice at this point in the conversation to empathize with the person who shared the conflict with you, since he or she may be feeling disappointed, betrayed or somehow wronged by your organization.

Step 5: Make a Decision

Now it’s time to make a decision about the conflict. Does the situation warrant additional action? Did the other person just need to vent built-up frustrations, or is a resolution expected? Will you require more information from the other people involved in the conflict prior to moving forward with any actions?

Even if you cannot provide an immediate solution to the problem, it is in your best interest to leave the person feeling satisfied and relieved that someone understands the conflict and is working on fixing it.

At this stage, your own integrity will be tested, since you now have an obligation to follow through with the appropriate action regarding the conflict. Sometimes, this may be as simple as making a follow-up phone call to determine if the person’s needs were addressed. When done quickly and efficiently, such actions will indicate to all concerned that you are reliable and someone to be trusted, which speaks to your good character and professionalism as a manager.

Strategies for Coaxing & Coaching Change

Change is inevitable in any organization that wants to stay ahead of the competition and move forward with the times. The problem is that some people react favorably to change, while many others fear and resist it, adding to the manager’s already challenging job.

There are usually four primary reasons why employees resist change:

1. They don’t understand why the new policy or new change needs to take place.

2. They need time to engage in the change; or they may believe they cannot balance additional responsibilities with their current job obligations.

3. They may not think they have the skills this change requires of them.

4. They may not share the values that are driving the change.

Managers can effectively coach their employees through change by understanding the reasons behind the resistance and then guiding the employees through these obstacles. Use these strategies to coax and coach your employees through changes:

  • Prepare your employees for an upcoming change by communicating openly and honestly about the reasons for the modifications.
  • Meet with the impacted team either as a group or individually to discuss why the change is needed; how it will affect each of their jobs; and what benefits they can expect from it. This education process will lower resistance, reduce anxiety and get the “buy-in” you need to successfully implement any changes.
  • Explain what led to the desired change and what the exact implications are for each individual. For example, if you are planning to restructure the company’s compensation plan, explain why the current plan isn’t working and then detail how each employee will benefit from the change. Prepare worksheets forecasting the person’s compensation in the new plan by pay period, by month and by year compared with current income.
  • Show off your communication skills by listening carefully, asking open-ended questions, staying objective and describing in detail solutions or answers to their concerns.
  • If dealing with an unplanned change, such as the firing, loss or replacement of a well-liked co-worker, be honest and forthright. Avoid gossip, remain professional and quickly address concerns with whatever information you are at liberty to share. Being honest with your team doesn’t mean you have to violate anyone’s confidence or share personal details about an event; simply give others the information they need to continue to perform their jobs well.
What’s in It for You

Fitness managers are faced with conflict and change on a daily basis. Over the course of your career, you will work with a variety of people who present an astonishing array of challenges. Practicing and utilizing the strategies shared in this article will help you successfully handle difficult conversations, deal effectively with conflict and coach your employees through the inevitable changes that will occur over time.

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About the Author

Amy Boone Thompson

Amy Boone Thompson IDEA Author/Presenter

Amy has first-hand experience and expertise in development, implementation and management of fitness programming. Amy is passionate about paying it forward and has been a presenter and author for the franchise and fitness industries for the last decade. She currently serves as Program Director Committee Member for IDEA & Chair for the Board of Advisors for National Personal Training Institute.