closed up two hands shaking

“She was a total jerk in the meeting today, calling me out to make me look bad. She did the same thing two weeks ago. I need to get this fixed, but I hate confrontations. I should have dealt with her approach months ago when she starting doing little things to highlight my errors. Now I have a crisis.”

Oh, if we could see the future. Ever procrastinate on a conflict that grew large and seemingly intractable. Or how about simply walking away from an issue because you did not want to create a conflict? Most of us have and we hate when we do it.

Here are some thoughts on how to address conflicts. It may not calm all your uneasiness. It may however, provide the structure you need to deal consistently with conflicts.

These thoughts are a compilation of my own experiences reinforced through reading and study. One of the better sources I have found is The Art of Connection by Michael J. Gelb. It resonates with me because, as you might imagine, it focuses on connecting with the person you are having the conflict with.

Here are a set of principles to help guide you:

The first universal rule is: Do not make things worse.

As you know making things worse is pretty easy to do. A conflict by definition is an act that is in violation of something that is personally important to you. When someone violates a value of yours, guess what? It creates an emotional reaction, generates adrenaline and the primitive part of our brains takes over.

The next steps are based on getting control of your emotions and professionally dealing with the conflict.

Step one: Take time (when). It may be three seconds, three minutes, three hours, or three days. Three weeks is probably too long. Conflict has to be dealt with in a timely fashion. There is a window of time that is optimum to deal with the conflict. Immediately, getting in someone’s face is rarely that sweet spot. Although it can be shortly after the incident. For the above anecdote, a short meeting after the episode may be exactly what is needed.

In reality we know what time frame is reasonable for addressing the issue. Why do we wait? It’s uncomfortable so we justify to ourselves to wait or deal with it later.

A guiding thought: Take the time to hold your tongue, get control, and determine the right time to address the conflict. (Do not make things worse.)

Step two: Place (where). Where are you going to deal with it? In public with a crowd present, may not be the best setting. Think through how the setting will affect the conflict. In your office, their office, a neutral setting, and how you are positioned has an impact. Across a large conference table can be confrontational, sitting adjacent without a barrier sends a different message, as does the meeting place. The place can affect the power dynamics. In a conference room with all the players present shortly after an incident may be appropriate for some events, catastrophic for others.

A guiding thought: Think through how the setting will help you resolve the conflict. (Do not make things worse.)

Step three: Empathy. Be genuinely empathic. Show you care about the other person. I do not mean “show” by acting. Conflicts have at least two people involved who feel they are correct in their view and want to be heard. Show empathy by:

  • Taking the perspective of the other person
  • Think, “what role did I play in causing this conflict”
  • Letting the other person give you their point of view. Let them “empty the tank”.

This step is difficult because is forces us get out of our element, be uncomfortable, and listen. This is not the time to defend, make our point, or push our perspective. If the person you are working with is reasonable and out of line, it is a good possibility they will come to that conclusion. If not, you have given them the opportunity to completely present their view.

(Do not make things worse.)

Is this foolproof? I wish. Does it give you the opportunity to professionally deal with conflict without making it worse? It has for me. It is not complicated nor is it easy. It takes practice:

Universal rule: Do not make the conflict worse

  • Time: What is the sweet spot for dealing with the conflict?
  • Place: Where should the conflict be resolved, consider power dynamics and the message sent by the setting?
  • Be Empathic: Understand the perspective of the other person, what role may you have played, and let them empty their tank.

How could you implement this methodology to solve a conflict you are currently dealing with?

To lead you have to be effective in dealing with conflict.