Managing Conflict

Conflict has a bad name but it doesn’t have to. It can be an opportunity for the people involved to learn about themselves, get insight into their fixed ways of thinking or biases. Working through conflict can certainly be uncomfortable and like most people I’d rather avoid it, but I’ve learnt it’s better to deal with it rather than hide from it. It’s also better to deal with it sooner rather than later, so that it doesn’t spread, infecting other people.

Whenever I’ve intentionally dealt with conflict the result has been better than when it’s been ad hoc. Does that mean I got my way each time? No. I didn’t. If I had, I think that would indicate manipulation, misuse of power or even bullying.

However if you listen to the other person, really listen without being in a fixed position, mostly you’ll find there’s merit in at least some of what they are saying. Additionally each time you do it, you get a little better at sitting with being uncomfortable. It’s never nice or easy, but you can get a good feeling if you do it well because your integrity is good.

Dealing with it intentionally means I need to be mentally prepared. I practice what I want to say and how. I know I want to focus on the issue because that’s the problem, not the person. I focus on the facts rather than allow myself to get emotional because as emotions go up, logic goes down.

I’ve never solved conflict when I’ve been emotional. I’ve never seen anyone else do it either. Conversely that’s when names are called, the issue gets ‘kitchen sinked’ with old or other issues being thrown into the mix or other people get dragged in, all of which makes it exponentially more complex.

My advice may be controversial, but I suggest you never ever use ‘I feel … When you…’. I believe this moves straight to an emotive place and the other person feels blamed. Even if that’s not your intention.

I practice mostly how I might start the conversation because that’s generally the difference between a good result or not.

I talk gently, use careful non-inflammatory conciliatory language and watch for my own buttons. I know what sets me off. I have a strong belief in social justice and I have strong opinions of right and wrong, so I need to watch out for self-righteousness or moral indignation. I feel physical symptoms and I’ve learnt to recognise them early.

I’d start by saying something like, thanks for meeting with me.  I’m really concerned that we seem to be at odds over xxx issue and I’d like an opportunity to explore that with you. Would it be ok to do that?

I use a thing I call a first draft. I say to the other person that I find these conversations to be quite stressful and difficult and lots of other people find it to be difficult as well, and so since we are both human and prone to misspeak when under pressure would I please be able to take something back by saying first draft? It’s like hitting backspace, backspace

So I actually say… First draft… Sorry that didn’t come out right … Can I please try that again. I apologise for saying that.

I’ve always found people are really happy to do it, and use it themselves as well. I think people like being able to take words back. Particularly if they are genuinely wanting to solve the conflict. I think they are curious as well to see how it works. I’ve never had a person raise something later that I’ve taken back using first draft. It’s been deleted.

I check that we both have a common understanding of the facts or information and that neither of us has made any incorrect assumptions. Quite often the conflict can be dissolved at this stage because it’s really easy to genuinely apologise if it’s apparent you got the wrong end of the stick. If it’s me I would say ‘I’m so sorry, I made an assumption’, or ‘gee I really got that wrong. I’m so sorry. Thank you for helping me get clear about that’. If it’s the other person who’s made the mistake I say something which makes it easy for them to save face. I say something like, ‘Well it seems we’ve been at odds with each other over a misunderstanding’ and leave a space which lets the other person keep their dignity and agree.

If the clarification doesn’t sort it, it’s usually because it’s a matter of principle and you can agree to disagree after respectfully listening to the other opinion.  If that’s the case, I’d be looking then to get agreement on how we could move forward so that we can work together or be in the same space given we have an area of disagreement.

Using disagreement rather than saying conflict seems to lower the heat too. Or use words like difference of opinion.

Self-management is really important. If I find I’m getting upset or emotional (or they are) I might ask for, or suggest a break. Any kind of a circuit breaker to re-gather my thoughts and my composure. When I come back I can go in a different direction if I need to. The break gives me time to think, and ask myself is this working, was there something that was pushing their buttons because if there is, don’t do that. I check they are ok to continue.

I’m not scared of silence either. Sometimes it’s better to sit and think than talk. Gives them time to think too.

When I think it’s sorted I check again. I kind of do a sniff test. I smell the air. I describe it as being like when you step in something nasty and despite cleaning it up you can still smell it. You know in your gut if it’s not cleaned up properly, it might be another issue, it might be that you need to go speak to another person/s and sort something with them. It may be that you need to apologise. Ask the other person about whether it feels sorted to them. They’ll know if it’s not. Sometimes both of you have to do some clean up, maybe even together. It may be you’ve enlisted other people in the drama, and misguided them too. You and the other person may both have done that and left other people feeling bad. That’s mess that’s needs cleaning up. Keep sniffing the air until it feels clean. That’s your integrity being restored.

If it’s not going anywhere I think it’s best to bail. It’s better than making it worse. That’s when it’s time to call in a mediator or someone who can facilitate a discussion. There’s no harm in that. It’s not a failure either. It’s just a matter of knowing your own skills and limits.

It may be that the other person doesn’t fight fair and you are being bullied or you are struggling to stay logical. So it makes sense to call in someone who can do it.

Each time is an opportunity to practice, try something different. Sincerely wanting to resolve the issue and being conciliatory is the key.


Key messages:

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Sit with being uncomfortable.

Logic goes down when emotion goes up.

Take responsibility.



This is an abstract from a panel discussion at the Women’s Leadership Symposium Hobart on 4 September 2015.