Managing Conflict in the Travel Business
By Lisa Gillis (Nexion Travel Group)
Conflict is something most of us prefer to avoid, but when you’re working in any industry, conflict resolution skills are a must-have. The travel industry is no exception. I joined the travel industry seven years ago and, in that time (as well as the time spent in my previous career in the medical field) I have seen my share of conflict and confrontational situations. I’ve sat back and watched how others managed these situations and reflected on what went well and what could be improved upon. When the situation involved me, I would (and still do) spend time reflecting on the conflict and evaluating myself, taking the time to review how my behavior, choice of words, tone of voice, etc. had an impact on the situation. I, again, reflect on what went well and what I can improve on to better manage conflict situations.
As a Business Development and Education Manager, part of my job is to have coaching calls with my organization’s independent contractors (IC’s). The majority of the time these calls are easy-going. Sometimes, however, I must point out some harsh realities to the IC, which, if done right, can lead to an easy-going conversation. Done wrong, however, can lead to harsh words and lots of yelling. Over the years I have developed the skills necessary to not only effectively manage conflict, but also the ability to see the potential for conflict. I have learned, over the years, that a few simple questioning techniques, used appropriately, can have a deep impact on those conflict (or potential conflict) situations.
I recently had a one-on-one coaching call with an advisor where, through the application of effective questioning techniques, I was able to diffuse what could have been a much more challenging situation. I would like to share some of this experience with you, in the hopes that you can also gain some of the valuable insights that I did.
1. Effective Questioning Techniques
Prior to the coaching call, I delved into past email communications to scope out potential challenges. I also spoke with colleagues who have spoken to this advisor previously to gather more insight on the situation at hand. Based on the information I found, I anticipated that the advisor might be defensive, so I prepared questions tailored to her struggles and goals, taking into consideration the stress and challenges I knew she had been dealing with in recent years. When, as I expected, the advisor became somewhat defensive, I utilized the Four Principles of Effective Questioning:
Customize for Context
Be sure questions are sensitive to things like the person’s values, environmental factors, recent history, current stresses, and so on. Knowing that this advisor had been dealing with some legal issues, as well as the stresses of COVID since joining Nexion, I steered away from asking questions about why she had not completed this or that training assignment in the last four years. Instead, I phrased my questions in a manner that would help determine what the advisor needs to move forward and how I can best assist.
Create Inviting Questions:
There are all sorts of ways to ask a question. For the purposes of this conversation, I crafted open-ended questions to understand the agent's learning preferences. For instance, instead of mentioning specific program names, I asked, "How do you learn best?" This allowed her the freedom to express herself without feeling pressure to conform to a particular answer. Here are some ideas:
- Fact-finding questions - Do you have a niche in mind? Have you created a business plan? What are your goals for the next 12 months?
- Feeling Finding Questions – What do you feel your roadblocks are? How do you learn best? What do you hope to get out of today’s call?
- Tell-me-more questions - Can you tell me more about why you chose cruising as your niche? Is there a specific area of cruising that appeals to you most?
By asking the questions above (and others like them) and asking them at the appropriate time, the advisor was able to let her guard down, and felt like she was truly being listened to. At this point I was able to provide recommendations without much resistance.
Asking with Sensitivity
To foster an environment of trust, I tried to approach the questions with the utmost sensitivity. Rather than directly calling out her incomplete training, I inquired about her perceived roadblocks to getting her business off the ground. This approach encouraged her to reflect on her knowledge gaps without feeling too much blame or shame.
Linguistic nuances can easily lead to misunderstandings, so I made sure to continuously clarify assumptions during our discussion. When the advisor expressed a reluctance to dive into things, I asked, "Are you saying that you don’t want to make any bookings unless you feel you know everything there is to know about cruising, for example?" This ensured mutual understanding and facilitated a more open dialogue.
2. Managing Conflict
This involves listening to people so that they feel heard, and their built-up emotions can be diffused. Keep in mind that everyone vents emotions differently. A person who is more confrontational in nature is more likely to speak loudly (perhaps even yell), talk fast, and even use harsh language. When speaking with a person who is acting in such a manner, it is important that you stay calm. Talk in a soft, even tone. This is not the time to match the other person’s energy.
The advisor I had been working with is a confrontational person by nature. Going into the call knowing this allowed me to prepare for and balance out her high energy. I allowed her to vent her feelings of frustration and disappointment that have developed over the past few years, and met her with kindness, compassion, and a soft, even tone which helped calm her. This served as a cathartic release, creating an atmosphere where her emotions were validated.
By giving her space to vent and using the questioning techniques mentioned earlier, I identified the root cause of her frustration—having a goal but lacking a clear path to achieve it. I was able to determine both her biggest struggle and a workable solution. What she needed was structure and a clear path to help her achieve her goals.
This situation could have gone quite differently, but with a little empathy and the careful application of effective questioning techniques, we were able to reach a productive outcome.
It is my hope that by sharing this experience, others will see that conflict is neither inevitable nor inevitably bad. Many people hear the word conflict and feel uncomfortable as their minds immediately turn to yelling matches, name calling, threats, etc. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Many great ideas have resulted from conflict. The key is in knowing how to manage it in such a way as to allow for calm discussions to take place.
The next time you are in a conflict situation or see the potential for conflict with your travel advisors, managers, clients, etc., remember that you can get ahead of the situation by proactively gathering as much information as you can, and then utilizing the techniques outlined above. Remember, these techniques are not an exhaustive list. There are many conflict management techniques you can use, so take some time to research them (below are some of my favorite resources) and start honing those skills.
My Favorite Resources
- Conflict Resolution Playbook: Practical Communication Skills for Preventing, Managing, and Resolving Conflict by Jeremy Pollack
- Working with Difficult People: (Second Revised Edition) by Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon
- LinkedIn Learning: Developing Conflict Management Skills. This is a 4.5-hour course with six training videos. It is well worth the time.