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Conflict in the workplace is all too predictable, but that doesn't make it any less difficult to deal with. Engaging conflict with both skill and heart is critically important; how we do so can literally make or break our careers. Management literature suggests that conflict, properly addressed, can lead to innovation and creativity. But, when we are immersed in it, conflict usually provokes defensiveness and judgment that has us questioning others' motives and our own effectiveness.

So, what can you do when you or your organization are in the vortex of conflict? Consider the following proven approaches that can help move individuals or groups to constructive action.

Leaning into Conflict

Many of us have experienced the impact of conflict avoidance on our organization and lamented the work around it and wasted time and resources it causes. Engaging conflict can build strong cultures that amplify critical differences and inspire greater insight and creativity. Think of a time you were presented with opposing views or disagreement. Chances are you felt a rush of heat run through your body or got that feeling in your chest that signals warning and fear. These physical manifestations indicate that the situation requires some sort of response from you-typically "fight" or "flight." Acknowledging your initial emotional response as normal and stepping back for a moment allows you to see the issue from a new, less threatening perspective.

Turning Judgment into Curiosity

Our large, complex brains can conjure feelings of defensiveness and judgment in order to protect us from harm. In no time at all, we can make up a story about the wrong that has been done to us, our division or unit, and marshal our defenses accordingly. Glenda Eoyang, a pioneer in the field of Human Systems Dynamics, suggests that when we find ourselves moving to judgment of ourselves or others, we turn that judgment into curiosity by asking "Why am I reacting to this?" "Why are they presenting the issue in this way?" "What are the conditions that give this issue such an edge?" When we turn judgment into curiosity, we are taking the punch out of the conflict and dampening its effect as we explore the issue from a more emotionally neutral perspective. This can ultimately move the conflict to shared inquiry and perhaps, creative solutions.

Discerning Objective and Subjective Truths

Once you have engaged the conflict and are in a curious mindset, you are ready to explore the facts and interpretations that surround it. Distinguishing the difference between Objective and Subjective truths can be a helpful way to help understand the dynamics of the disagreement. Objective Truth is fact-based, indisputable and can be proven. Subjective Truth is a person or group's unique perspective or opinion on a topic. It is the story we tell ourselves and others about the intentions, motives and perhaps morality of the person, group or unit causing us angst.

Recording objective truths, is a useful first step as it mentally prepares you to enter into dialogue with less emotion and indicates a readiness to compare facts for greater understanding of the situation. Once your objective truths have been recorded, document your subjective truths. What are you telling yourself about this situation? What inferences are you making? Where do you feel vulnerable or threatened? Where are you feeling justified? You are now ready to meet with the other party and begin resolving the conflict.

Beginning the Dialogue

After both parties have recorded their objective and subjective truths, you are ready to begin the dialogue. The series of steps that follow can help guide your work:

  1. Share your goals and interests: What do you want for yourself and, what you want for the other party? Sharing these goals builds a more even playing field and communicates a desire for a win/win outcome.
  2. Develop ground rules: Effective ground rules will further shape the conditions where participants can engage in healthy dialogue and help each other accomplish their goals. Ground rules may include:
    • What we say here stays here
    • Use "I" statements
    • Recognize the difference between mining for so-called truth, and understanding another's perception
    • Bring your "leaderful" self and "Best Government" perspective
    • Bring large doses of humility
    • Practice respectful meeting etiquette-listen, wait to speak when someone else is speaking, take turns, etc.
    • Agree on what will leave the room
  3. Share objective truths: Together, agree on those that are most useful for problem solving or exploring next steps to accomplish your goals. Reviewing mutually-accepted data can be a powerful way to build shared understanding.
  4. Share subjective truths: Take great care to listen and understand the fear, anger or vulnerability that may underlie the words. When sharing subjective truths is done well and there is evidence of compassion or sympathy for the other, solutions often naturally pour forth.
  5. Design win/win agreements: Move into a creative mode to identify mutually-acceptable solutions and agreements that will resolve the conflict to both parties' satisfaction.
  6. Seal your deals in writing with clear and precise language: Include scheduled follow-up meetings to ensure that each party is holding up their end of the bargain and to trouble shoot as new challenges emerge.

The Role of Neutral Help

It can be difficult to be involved in a conflict and facilitate agreement at the same time. Many groups find it helpful to have an objective third party assist by creating a neutral space, providing support and guidance to the participants, keeping conversations on track, holding people accountable to ground rules, and recording conversations and agreements. This frees participants up to be fully present to the shared inquiry, discern their part in the conflict, and identify what they will do to build relationships and forge a more constructive path.


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