Friction. Conflict. Tension. Clash. I consider myself to be an expert.
Not because of my schooling, so much as my experience. Between my job as a Training and Leadership Development Manager, where I’m constantly on calls coaching top executives and managers, and everyday life with my wife and our three kids, I have plenty of opportunities to study (as well as practice) effective conflict management. Most of us want to find a place where conflict doesn’t happen; however, this is a losing proposition—where we find people, we will certainly find disagreements at some point. The better search is for how we can handle conflict well together.
Here are the 11 most important things I’ve learned about preventing, defusing, and managing conflict in the workplace from 25 years of working with people:
1. Conflict happens.
Where there are people, there is the potential for (or perhaps even the inevitability of) conflict. Even when people like each other, are generally headed in the same direction, and have good intentions, they bring opposing desires to the table. When agendas don’t align, there’s resistance. That’s not even accounting for factors like fatigue, stress, and miscommunication. Spend enough time with someone and there will eventually be friction.
Without realistic expectations for conflict, a common tendency can be to panic and abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. Many people say that marriage takes work, but function as if it doesn’t. When challenges inevitably arise, the faulty premise (“conflict doesn’t happen in good marriages”) leads to erroneous deductions (“I must have married the wrong person”). People end up leaving jobs and breaking off relationships when perhaps all they need to do is address a few issues. Go into every relationship with the reasonable expectation that you will have occasional challenges and you won’t be caught off guard.
2. There is a silver lining in conflict.
Conflict in the workplace can be productive. Friction makes flying airplanes possible. Of course, the friction has to be harnessed correctly, or it could drive you into the ground. How you respond is key.
If you think of conflict as something to be avoided, you will find yourself backing away from important conversations and struggling to truly connect with people. Conflict is a natural part of a healthy, growing relationship. Working through hard stuff together strengthens relational bonds and deepens intimacy. In fact, many relationships can stagnate or remain superficial if two people aren’t willing (or able) to resolve disagreements in healthy ways.
Have you ever worked through an issue with someone and found that the relationship was better for it? When people are willing to put aside pride and entitlement, they have a great chance of surviving even emotionally intense disagreements—and relationships can be better for it.
3. Establish “rules of engagement” in advance.
When I’m doing premarital coaching, I always advise couples, “You guys are going to fight. The question is, how are you going to do it?”
In any relationship, it’s important to decide ahead of time, while in a calm emotional state, what you will do—and what you simply will not do under any circumstances. Once agreed upon, write everything down.
For example, my wife Kristy and I agreed over 20 years ago that no matter how heated an argument gets, we will never swear at each other. Even early in our relationship, we knew that things said in a fight could leave scars that are hard to move on from, even if we forgive one another: “You can’t unring the bell.” Simply put, some things can’t be unsaid. Publishing boundaries when we’re lucid and unemotional creates a safeguard—a line that we remember never to cross, even if we’re fired up.
4. Assess and address issues regularly.
In his book What Did You Expect?, Paul David Tripp likens relationships to gardens. Every garden constantly has weeds growing, which if not pulled, will eventually take over. Selfishness, inattention, laziness, and fear are all examples of “weeds” that choke out growth in even the healthiest relationships. Without maintenance, a beautiful garden could be unrecognizable after a few months. Similarly, without checking regularly, a friendship or marriage could be unrecognizable after a few months, too. What’s more, it’s not enough to simply spend time together or go on regular date nights if we aren’t consistently dealing with communication issues or unhealthy habits. Quality and quantity time without addressing issues is like watering your garden, but never weeding it.
Weeding involves taking personal inventory and ruthlessly culling personal flaws. There are times where I’ve had to ask for forgiveness; other times, I’ve had to work to make ammends. Simply acknowledging issues is not enough: you need to make a concrete plan of action to address the weeds. Of course, we’ll never be perfect, but hear me right: addressing even one or two key issues can make a massive difference. Pulling a couple of the largest weeds can make the garden look instantly better, and help the plants start growing again. Every weed pulled moves you forward.
5. Practice preventative care.
A lush garden isn’t just about pulling weeds, but also planting seeds. Paul Tripp says to follow weed-pulling with seed-planting: not just dealing with issues in the relationship, but actively cultivating unity and strengths.
In a relationship, preventative care might include dreaming together, setting goals and making plans, and encouraging and affirming each other. It means praising people when you catch them doing something right. It means spending time together where you’re not doing business.
Quality and quantity time are necessary to cultivate healthy relationships. Early in my career, I didn’t take lunch breaks, but worked hard at my desk while choking down some food. When I transitioned to a culture in which others ate lunch together, my tendency at first was to continue working dilligently at my desk and powering through. However, I noticed that both my boss and the president regularly made time to eat lunch with all of us at the table. Turns out, the lunch table is a place where coworkers share their lives and learn about each other’s families and dreams. Knowing them and being known during this ritual of trust and camaraderie produces trust and grace. Connecting over food establishes a positive bias so that when conflict hits, we feel invested enough in other people to work through it. If conflict is friction, trust and grace is oil.
6. Always handle conflict eyeball to eyeball.
I can’t over-emphasize this: difficult and important conversations should never take place over email or text. How many times have you sent that angry text or terse email and ended up regretting it? Other times, you didn’t mean to offend, but they took offense to something you wrote?
Text-only mediums like email and text are unavoidable, and they have their place, but they only allow for limited communication. Alternatively, when we can see each other, communication gets richer: head nods, eyes widening or narrowing, smiles and frowns, head tilts, and wrinkled brows all intuitively mean something to us and help us understand what others are saying more than words, tone, pitch, and speed of a phone call could…and certainly more than text or email.
In situations of high emotional intensity, the margin for error is so narrow that we need every possible advantage. For difficult conversations, live and in person (eyeball to eyeball) is always best; second-best is video chat; and finally, if absolutely necessary, phone. If the conversation is important enough to have, it’s important enough to be done right. Refuse to give in to sending that angry text or terse email. Pick up the phone and set an in person meeting.
7. Seek first to understand…
One of my first priorities in conflict resolution is to draw out and understand the other person’s position before I ever try to present mine. I have to set aside my instinct to double down and “be right,” and instead, try to get to the root issue. I might not agree with them, but by hearing them out, I’m initiating peace.
I ask questions that invite them to share their side: “Help me understand what you want. What would you see as a win in this situation? What would make you happiest in this moment? What would feel good for us to talk about right now?” This moves the conversation from conflict to collaboration.
8. And then to be understood.
It’s my responsibility to make sure my message lands. If they don’t understand it, I need to be the one to initiate change and adjust my presentation. This might mean using a new analogy, asking different questions, and continuing to check in.
It is my responsibility to help my audience understand what I’m saying. As a young leader, I focused more on what I was saying than I did on how they were getting it. You could say that my focus was on “throwing a good ball.” 25 years later, I judge how well I’m communicating based on how it’s received. In other words, I judge that I threw a good ball if they caught it. If they didn’t? It’s on me to adjust.
9. Employ the twenty-four-hour rule.
Recently, I had a heated disagreement with a coworker that left us both emotionally charged. If I’m honest, I was a little fired up going into the conversation in the first place, and overestimated my ability to handle the issue with a cool head. In general, I have never regretted taking 24 hours to think about something before bringing it to the person. “Cooler heads prevail” is a cliché that serves well. On the other hand, I have deeply regretted moving into conflict rashly. We could have avoided the conflict if I simply waited a day or two before bringing the challenge (in fact, it might not have been important enough to bring at all.)
Sleep on it. You’ll set yourself on fire a lot less.
10. It’s okay to take a break.
Back to that argument: that coworker above? She is someone I consider to be a close friend. And yet, there we were, escalating an argument at the end of the day at the end of a long season—right before a major event in which we were both key stakeholders. Fortunately, we were able to pause the argument and put a pin in it before we got too crazy. “We are not going to figure this out today. Let’s come back to it another time.”
11. Affirm truth where you can.
Still not done with that fight above. That coworker and I wound up taking more than a day to cool off before re-engaging. Over that weekend, she initiated peace with a thoughtful text: “Hey, just thinking about what happened. We’ll work through it. We’ll be okay.” Even though we hadn’t reached resolution yet, that gracious affirmation reassured me that she was still committed to me and to our relationship.
Of course, we hugged it out eventually.
All of this is nice in theory, but of course, knowing these principles isn’t the same as putting them into practice, and applying them once or twice isn’t the same as practicing them habitually. It’s a lifelong process with constant room for improvement. Don’t be discouraged! Enjoy the journey, admit your mistakes, and invest in your relationships.
Remember, too, that even if you do everything right in conflict management, it takes two willing parties to move forward. You can’t control how other people respond to you, and you’ll only wear yourself out if you try. What you can control is your own words and actions, which can escalate or de-escalate a situation. Even when I don’t get the outcome that I want, I never regret leading out in peacemaking. Practicing humility and emotional intelligence makes me a better leader, a better husband and father, and a better person.