In my last blog, I discussed how leaders should invite conflict to generate better results. Research supports that we don’t handle conflict well as professionals or as organizations. My experience as a professional is that conflict is rarely handled correctly because emotions and ego overtake logic and objectivity. Let’s look at some possible steps to take during a confrontation to “do” it well.  

1. Pause and Think. Part of managing yourself includes being assertive when seeking to understand the “why” behind the conflict instead of driving home your personal opinion. This takes self-control and the presence of mind to pause and think before responding. The pause is the time to take a “10,000-foot view” of what is unfolding before you and your colleague. Use this time to determine the reason behind the conflict.

Determining this can be challenging in an emotionally charged situation, but some of the most effective leaders I know use “pause and think” to their advantage time and time again.  The conflict “Jedi” develops their healthy habit of pausing and thinking intentionally; it’s a focus of their self-development. One of my mentors used to use the phrase, “Be the sponge,” and soak up all the details of the challenge at hand before responding. He was saying “pause and think” before you respond. This is sage advice for all leaders.

2. Build trust. Respond with neutrality and curiosity.  When leaders respond while in conflict, they are either developing or fracturing organizational trust. Trustworthiness in conflict is necessary to build engagement, encourage innovation, and develop problem-solvers. If leaders respond with neutrality and curiosity while in conflict, direct reports will feel “heard” and respected by an organization that values their opinions and ideas. The courageous direct report may have a pretty good idea of generating revenue or bringing about a new, innovative change. If you respond with curiosity, you encourage a high level of engaged leadership at all levels.

Our team likes to use the statement, “Help me understand,” to encourage healthy conflict. A simple response in conflict may be, “Help me understand the rationale behind your point.” Another option is asking a question like, “Can you further explain your thought process supporting your point?”

3. Clear away the clutter. Leaders need to become hyper-sensitive to seeking the heart of the issue at hand and not the party involved in the conflict. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 discusses “clearing away the (internal) clutter” before responding. Bradberry and Greaves expand on this point of clearing away internal mental clutter while in conversations by resisting the urge to interrupt and make your point. Second, they state, “Squelch that voice that is planning your response.” If we really try to listen for the issue at hand, it means active and participative listening.  We need to clear the internal clutter and focus on the issue, not the person.

4. Seek closure through understanding, not agreement. Many professionals, friends, and parents seek to end conflict prematurely because it’s emotionally charged and uncomfortable. I recently listened to my wife navigate conflict expertly with one of our children. My wife was very persistent in her quest to understand our daughter’s side of the argument.

She was patient but stern in her responses and kept asking for clarification so she could properly respond to our daughter. I was amazed at how my wife de-escalated a tense argument with excellent questions and seeking to understand our Gen Z kiddo. There is little difference in the professional sector. Leaders and colleagues need to seek understanding persistently instead of seeking agreement to end conflict, only to grumble about the outcome for the rest of the day.  

Conflict is key to innovation, learning, and development in all areas of our lives. Instead of avoiding conflict, invite it, and manage your responses using this method. Let us know your thoughts—we want to learn from your experiences too! 

handle conflict