helicopter view conflict resolution

Conflict Resolution Part 3

When you enter an argument between two people your very presence affects the situation and adds a third dimension on it. The next time two people are talking together anywhere (yes, even at a party) join them and see how their conversation changes.

Conflict Resolution Part 3

Taking a meta or helicopter view

When dealing with people embroiled in difficult situations, one thing becomes very clear. It is very easy to get sucked into the situation. One minute the issue seems to be between two people and the moment you decide to sort it out, you find yourself lost in the detail and taking sides. In fact, it is not unheard of for each party to be reconciled in their mutual annoyance at your interference and skip off together into the sunset, leaving you the ‘bad guy’.

Becoming part of the dynamic

When you enter an argument between two people your very presence affects the situation and adds a third dimension on it. The next time two people are talking together anywhere (yes, even at a party) join them and see how their conversation changes. In the first instance, they will at least feel the need to explain what they were discussing and then, depending on you, they may even modify their language to suit their new audience. It is particularly interesting to see the changes in two people in discussion at work who are suddenly joined by their manager. However, not all effects on the dynamic are unhelpful.

When you enter an argument between two people your very presence affects the situation and adds a third dimension to it.

The sudden presence of a manager, for example, can curtail bad language and prevent a petty argument becoming an offensive onslaught from which it is difficult to recover. It is impossible not to interject to sort out a problem situation, that is after all part of your role, but because of the dynamic it is important to try to limit your effect on the other team members, other than in a positive way.

So how can you do this? Take the helicopter view.

In the first instance, when there is a problem in the team that concerns only two people, aim to isolate them from the team while you try to mediate. As I described above, others will get sucked into the argument and start taking sides, so ask the people concerned to move with you to your office or a private room, rather than trying to deal with the situation in the full glare of everyone. (Quite often the mere physical movement from their desk space to another room will effect a change in behaviour.)

When there ask each person, without any interruptions, to state their situation – first one and then the other. Do not interrupt yourself other than to clarify any details, and make notes if you feel this would be helpful. At this point, there just may be a way forward if the issue is fairly simplistic but the likelihood is that the problem centres around either lack of communication or consideration. If. this is the case, you need (without getting involved yourself) to be able to take on a ‘helicopter’ view to see what is actually going on.

The meta position is like a spirit – or someone in a helicopter – hovering over the situation and seeing what is really going on.


Many adult-to-adult situations are actually very similar to childhood situations that have played out over the years. Imagine two children in the playground are having a disagreement. You can see what is actually happening, where the trigger points are, how one is antagonising the other – and it is played out as graphically as on a television screen. Although the people in front of you are older, they are still playing out these games with each other and it helps the situation to explain this in such a way that they can see for themselves what is going on. This technique is often called the meta position and it requires each person to imagine that in their disagreement there are not just two positions (each other), there is a third position – the meta position.

The meta position is similar to when you watch a TV soap: you, the watcher, can see what is going on between the characters’ argument because you are separated from any shared emotion. The characters cannot see it because they are blinded by their own emotions, and we watch with bated breath as they stumble on and make one bad decision after another.

To use this helicopter view technique, ask each person individually, when they take up this position, about what they see. What is actually happening? Where were the crunch points? Is this disagreement really about the situation as presented or is there some other smouldering situation going on? Do not be surprised if one of them laughs because the situation suddenly appears childish, or mentions that it all appears so silly.

It also prevents you from being sucked into the argument, as you are able to stay impartial and guide the process.


Do not be drawn into comparisons yourself and, as soon as you can, move on to how this either could have been prevented, and/or how the situation can be solved (draw on that meta or helicopter view position again to see how they would solve it if they were watching it from above). This is a powerful technique that is used in resolving many disputes and will enable everyone to identify trigger behaviours that can prevent a recurrence of the situation in the future.

There are many training courses on Conflict Resolution (or independent facilitators) that will help you (and the team) work through major issues. Help is never far away and as you grow in skills, you will grow in confidence. Here at Sussex Bussiness School, we offer a wide range of accredited Leadership courses a couple of them listed below that deal with Conflict Resolution:

Conflict Resolution Bitesize Course – £100 per programme, three programmes to choose from. Download a PDF Guide here.

Level 5 Award in Management and Leadership – £380 including Level 5 Certification with transferrable credits to progress your studies in Leadership. Download PDF Guide here.


Source: How can I manage Conflicting Team Members Paper. Instant Manager series by CMI

Other articles in these series:

Conflict Resolution Part 1

Conflict Resolution Part 2


read on

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