A Three-Step Cycle for Managing Workplace Conflict


 Conflict. If you’re like most people you have a love-hate relationship with it. We love it in movies, musicals, and plays but when approached by someone wanting to talk about sensitive topics we jump into fight or flight. Neither response allows us to approach conflict constructively.

When we find ourselves in conflict it’s usually because something is important to us. We feel strongly about it because we are emotionally attached.

The result is most often an emotional reaction with no intent on learning or growing. We engage just to prove our rightness. Consequently, we associate conflict with relatively aimless and frustrating discussions that evokes more conflict and more aimless frustration. The cycle goes on and on.

Unless you intentionally break it.

This can be done effectively by —

  1. Thoughtfully prepare ourselves for conflict
  2. Learning and practicing skills to effectively engage in it
  3. Systematically reflecting on our conflicts,

If we don’t do this, then we will always view conflict as something we need to avoid. Newsflash: Conflict can’t be avoided. Nor should it be because conflict can be a rich source of learning and connection.

Below are three detailed steps for successfully navigating conflict. When you apply the principles you won’t only resolve your conflicts but they will become helpful, creative, and effective.

1. Thoughtfully Prepare

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“The person without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.” — Thomas Carlyle

What is the purpose of the conversation? You may not be able to identify exactly why there is a conflict. This is because the dynamic of the relationship is complicated — however, you can identify why you are needing to or willing to engage in the conflict.

Ask yourself — “what do I want to accomplish?”

If you can’t identify this then you are not ready to have a conversation. Spend some time alone to think about your answer. If your answer ends up being “I just need to vent,” then try and do that by yourself or some other way.

Key point — Figure out your why and write it down before having a conversation.

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” — William Shakespeare

Conflict is not like killing an annoying fly. It is like growing a beautiful flower. Too often do we think about a specific conflict, what we are going to say, and imagine the conversation going great — only to be let down, triggered, and frustrated.

Most conflicts cannot be resolved with a quick-fix. If it can great — but don’t expect it. You can psychologically prepare by setting correct expectations for yourself.

Do this by drawing a horizontal line a piece of paper. At the right end of it write down the best-case scenario and at the left end the worst-case scenario. Then circle the space in between those two dots. Say out loud, “The outcome of this initial conversation will likely land somewhere here.”

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Of course, you will communicate your desire for the best-case scenario — but you need to psychologically prepare for trade-offs and compromises.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

— Wayne Dyer

Conflict is hard for some people and easy for others. The difference is largely attributed to how you were raised to think about arguments, conflict, and tension — the environment your conflict takes place in — and the social norms in that environment.

The first mental shift we need to make is a transition away from binary thinking. We think in binaries largely because society tells us to — happy or sad? old or young? Republican or Democrat? good or bad? male or female? heaven or hell?

We too often think of conflict the same way. They get their way or I get my way. This is wrong. A binary mentality restricts us from exploring innovative and mutually beneficial third, fourth, or fifth options.

Approaching conflict with a “both they can get their way and I can get my way” mentality alleviates some of the stress because it is no longer about winning or losing. Instead, it’s about exercising creativity and helping each other. This is what Mary Parker Follet called an integrative approach.

The second mental shift we need to make is related to the first. That is, someone can both have a negative emotional response and still value you and your relationship (maybe even value it more after the conflict).

Get in the right headspace by practicing this “both, and” mentality. You should have already written down what you want — now think about what you think the other party wants and write it down. Now, write down three potential ways both of you can get what you want.

Dos and don’ts of preparing

  • Make sure you plan to ask questions that uncover what it is they want. The better you understand their want the better off you are.
  • Accept the fact you could be wrong — or have incomplete information. No one knows everything.
  • Expect discomfort and plan on leaning into it.
  • Consider predetermining a time boundary so you two don’t talk for too long. You can always revisit the subject with the person.
  • Become self-aware of how you currently handle conflict so you can better prepare. Here are a self-assessment and a document that elaborates on some conflict types.

2. Skillfully Engage

“Communication works for those who work at it.”

— John Powell

If we do everything well in the preparation stage then we should be all set right? nope. Conflict is hard. We all have emotions and egos that make it easy for us to get off track. Here are three things you can do to ensure you skillfully engage.

“Whoever sets the agenda controls the outcome of the debate.” — Noam Chomsky

One of the worst mistakes a person can make is to spring conflict onto someone. Remember, the other party has likely not thought about the issue at hand as much as you have. But it’s also unwise to send a message outlining exactly what you want to talk about.

You can do this by sending a simple message. The message should be specific yet broad, engage the person, and not scare them away.

It might look something like this —

Hey Megan, do you mind if I set aside 30 minutes for us to talk about _________? The purpose would be to make sure (their wants) and (your wants) are both satisfied. Let me know if (date and time) work and I’ll send over a calendar invite.

If you are looking for something a bit more in the moment you can always say something like —

“Can I communicate something?”

“If you confuse you’ll lose.” — Donald Miller

After the meeting is scheduled you are going to have to set the stage again in person. There is no one right way to do this. What is most important is that you —

  • Ground the context of the conversation in observable data — e.g., “you made that decision without me.”
  • Share your interpretation of the observable data. — e.g., “you don’t want my opinion to be considered.”
  • Give them the benefit of the doubt — e.g., “can you help me understand?”

You can use a simple script like this “Thanks for the time today — I noticed (insert objective and observed behavior here) — The story I’m telling myself is (insert story here) — Can you help me understand?”

This verbiage is shaped by Brené Brown and Crucial Conversations and it works!

“The best ideas start as conversations” — Jonathan Ive

The discussion can go an infinite amount of directions from here. This is why the preparation phase is so important. If you do not set up guardrails for yourself before the discussion then you can quickly get off-topic.

The most important things to remember are — what is your primary purpose for having this conversation? And what is their point of view or what are they wanting/needing?

Dos and don’ts of engaging

  • Stephen Covey’s fifth habit “seek first to understand and then to be understood” is remembered but it is not often practiced. Ask questions to understand their desires, who might be putting pressure on them, and why are they currently doing what they’re doing?
  • Both validate the other party’s subjective experience and request them to validate yours — subjective experiences are always true.
  • Don’t try and eliminate the tension — tension gains and holds attention.
  • Either ignore personal jabs, tones, and eye-rolls from the other party or speak to them directly — “why did you roll your eyes when I said…” Don’t let these behaviors derail the conversation, rather let them add to its purpose.
  • Invite and allow emotion. Emotion is data — it needs to be part of the conversation if you hope to change or improve things in a real way.
  • Don’t take offense — doing so will not serve your end goal.
  • Accept you will likely give offense — you can both give offense and things will be okay. It's part of the learning process.
  • Communicate your desire for parties to mutually benefit from a solution that has not yet been thought of or discussed.
  • Identify and share potential non-binary solutions you came up with before to the conversation.
  • Don’t demand things and avoid ultimatums.
  • If on the receiving end of an ultimatum ask why they are making it an ultimatum. Don’t settle for unsatisfactory answers.
  • Be okay stepping away from the conversation without a solution to the problem. You can almost always make time to have another conversation.
  • Make sure your perspective is heard. Your subjective experience is valid and it is true for you. No one can tell you otherwise. If they don’t make space to even listen to your subjective experience then you need to make this known to them.
  • Be aware of your fight or flight tendency — remember you understand that binary thinking can cause major issues when solving conflict. Approach problems with a proactive mindset rather than reactive.
  • Wrap up the talk with aligned expectations. You don’t need a solution to justify a plan. A plan might be an agreement to continue talking about things at another time or a communicated plan for how things will start to change moving forward.

3. Diligently Reflect

“We do not learn from experience… We learn from reflecting on experience.

—John Dewey

After a tense conversation, we walk away with feelings. Maybe feelings of relief that its over, feelings of happiness because it went well, or feelings of anxiety because it didn’t go well.

This is good. Feelings are meant to be felt. You need to process the conversation and your feelings. You almost need to go back in time and be a fly on the wall to watch and listen so you can glean the essential learnings.

“Clarity precedes success.” — Robin Sharma

We often get confused, emotional, or overwhelmed because we do not dedicate time to make sense of our experiences.

After a conflict, we need to identify our main learnings. This helps us make sense of what happened and helps us process it maturely. Do this by answering these questions —

  • What do you now understand that you did not understand before?
  • What do they want? What did you think they wanted? If wrong, why were you wrong?
  • Why did the conversation go the way it did?
  • What can you try to make the conversation go better next time?

“We become what we repeatedly do.” — Sean Covey

After all of that, you are back at the beginning of the process. If you take the learnings from your reflection stage you will improve upon your preparation for the next engagement which will be more effective. With practice, you will become a master at creating constructive conflict and navigating tough situations.

No two conflicts are ever the same but they are all similar. The best part about this framework is you can jump in at any point. You don’t need to start at “thoughtfully prepare.” You can start by applying the principles in the “engagement” section the next time tensions are high. You can “reflect” right now on the last conflict you had with a colleague or spouse.

*When you apply these three principles you help yourself go from viewing conflict as a bad and painful thing you want to avoid, to viewing conflict as a normal and everyday experience that leads to constructive and innovative solutions.

Conflict is inevitable. It is part of being a human. It’s time we got good at it.