5 Ways to Manage Conflict with Less Stress
5 step process to craft Proactive Conversations. Provides words to master any difficult conversation.
5 Steps to Proactively Manage Any Conflict
What are you dealing with that is telling you that you need help to stop avoiding conflict and learn how
to say what needs to be said (without making matters worse) – too cumbersome
- Considering leaving my job because I just can’t stand to work with ….
- Feeling stressed out because relationship with (colleague/boss/direct reports) is ….
- Not being recognized for (achievements) –
- Worried because tension in my team has been noticed but nothing has been addressed with
you? (affecting performance)
Conflicts are something everyone has avoided at some point in their lives. People are talking about
conflict at work, at home, at school, in professional organizations, community groups, in every facet of
our lives. When I ask others what gets in the way of managing conflict, it would seem, they are at a loss
when it comes to knowing how to bring up, when to bring it up and most importantly, what to say. For all
these reasons, conflict generally gets avoided for as long as possible. But what about when you can’t
avoid it any longer? What do you do? What if you are a manager leading a team and have someone on
the team you cannot connect with? Eventually it will not be possible to just avoid it.
What causes conflict? Conflicts actually build over time. Usually, the longer we wait to address
something, the worse it gets. The stress builds the longer we wait to tackle it. I have seen this cause
people to overreact, overeat, over indulge and just plain, be rude unconsciously. I am recommending is
to be proactive in our approach to conflict. Being proactive means we notice that something is broken
and take action sooner rather than waiting. Being proactive means having total mastery over your own
mind, emotions and behaviors. It means believing you have the power to change negative situations and
take control over your life. Being proactive leads to happiness. It begins with self-awareness. By being
proactive, we demonstrate mastery over our own minds, emotions and behaviors and approach the
situation with the intention of improving it.
The word, conversation, is thrown around a lot today. But it can still send a chill up our spine when
someone says to you, “Can we talk?” Consider this, conversation is an opportunity to connect and
communicate. As Judith Glaser in “Conversational Intelligence” says, “a conversation is dynamic,
interactive and inclusive They evolve and impact the way we connect, engage, interact and influence
others enabling us to shape reality, mindsets, events, and outcomes in a collaborative.” I love that
description because it offers the power that conversations can have on our relationships, business
interactions, our children and families, as well as daily encounters like at the supermarket or picking up
our kids from school. Mastering well intentioned conversations with anyone we interact with has the
power to transform the quality of our lives and others. There isn’t much chance of that happening if we
are avoiding conversations out of fear, apprehension or neglect.
The authors of Crucial Conversations stress that “if we make it safe, we can talk about almost anything
with anyone.” There is so much implied in “making it safe”. It is about trust, but also being in control of
our thoughts and feelings and caring enough about the other person to be mindful of their thoughts and
After the years of counseling, training and coaching I have created an engaging process to get anyone
started on the path of embracing difficult conversations with ease. When we are being proactive, we can
take the position of changing a negative situation into a favorable one. I have put it into 5 Steps.
Consider what you want, first!
Reflect on what they want
“Ask” them into a dialogue (conversation)
Find common ground
Timeline for follow-up
Before you jump into the conversation, let’s take a look at what it takes before you meet to speak.
C – consider what you want – what do you want as an outcome? do your homework first! what
are you feeling about the person, situation scenario? Have they done something that offends you? Do
you find them difficult to be around? Do you trust them? What is going on with you and your feelings
about this person? Spend some time considering, because from my experience, people generally don’t
mind having any conversation, difficult or not, with someone they trust and feel good about. Even though
it may still be awkward, you care about them and their well-being. With someone you trust, it is much
easier to face delivering bad news, holding them accountable, sharing something that upset you.
But what if you don’t like them or feel you can’t trust them? Start, by considering what’s most
important in the long run. If this is someone on your team at work and you need something from them to
get the job done, it may be in your best interest to spend some time repairing the relationship. Think
about things like, What can you appreciate about this individual? Consider that you may not understand
things from their point of view. Be open to learning what it is about them that you may not understand.
Be open to the possibility, you may not have all the facts. Be curious to understand how things reached
the point they are.
Okay, now that you realize your apprehension may be unwarranted, then what? Well you are not in this
alone. What is going on with him or her?
R – reflect on what they want?- what do they want as an outcome? Imagine if you were them?
What might you be thinking or feeling? What if their performance is slipping and they are scared,
worried about job security? What if they are facing financial problems, issues with a spouse, parent or
child? How have they been acting lately? Do they have any reason to feel they cannot trust you?
Why? What is causing them to think that way? Maybe the last time you spoke with them, you avoided
eye contact with them or you heard they don’t like the way you are handling things on the team. Reflect
on possible situations that could be a factor. Take some time to ask yourself the question, is there
something that could be going on with them that I could be unaware of? How might this be impacting
their behavior, performance or attitude? Have you done something to offend them? Maybe so, maybe
not. So don’t stress over it, but there may be things that come to mind, that you said in the past, that
this person could have misunderstood or taken the wrong way. This can help you to think about it from
their perspective and help you to approach the conversation with more understanding and curiosity.
Okay so, now you know what is going on with you and you think you might have an idea what’s could
be going on with them. Now What?
A – “ask them” into a conversation Always ask first, if they have the time to speak about
something that has been bothering you. The best approach is always to get their approval to have the
conversation. If they say it is not a good time, then, “When would be a good time?” When approaching
your, “ask” keep it simple. Remember they may not know why you are approaching them; they may have
something they really need to take care of first. Keep the initial question succinct and to the point. This
is not the time for a long story into why you want to talk to them.
“I have noticed you have reported to work late 3 times this month, I am concerned because this is not
like you, what can you tell me about that?”
“We agreed that everyone would take turns doing the inventory, yet you have missed two of your
rotations, what’s can you tell me about that?” Be mindful of saying things like, “Why, did you drop the
ball again?” “Why do you think you can do whatever you want?” My general recommendation is to
never use “Why” to start a conversation like this. Why is accusatory. What and How invite inquiry and
The purpose of the “ask” is to get into a dialogue, to get their perspective. This can be used for any
kind of situation not just an supervisor/employee. Keep it simple and direct, with a balanced tone of
voice, approach from a position of being curious. You are curious about their perspective.
“Mike, each of us has taken a turn helping Mom, yet I have noticed you haven’t been been available, I am
beginning to think you don’t want to help out, how do you see this?”
Here you are offering a brief, clear picture with some input as to why it is important and then a direct
question. Start with what you have seen or heard. Add clarity, by indicating how the facts differ from
your expectation. This helps the other person understand why “the facts” are a concern.
Facts – each of us has taken a turn helping Mom, you have not been available
Clarify – I am beginning to think you don’t want to help out
Question – How do you see this?
Remember not to ask a question that you think will get them to blame themselves, although that could
happen. For example, a poor question would be, “Now don’t you think that was wrong that you didn’t
help with Mom? They might respond with a comment like, “Yeah, you are right, I should not have done
that, I realize I let everyone down.” If they say that great, but that should not be your goal to get them to
say that. You simply want to hear it from their perspective.
Remember to maintain eye contact, have a “open, accepting” look on your face as opposed to starring
them down with an accusatory look on your face. You are not here to accuse, or find fault or make
yourself right and them wrong. Don’t have the conversation until you feel you can approach it objectively.
This is where dialogue takes place. Your purpose is to listen and understand what is happening from their
perspective. So now, look for what you can agree on.
F – find common ground – what can you agree on? What part of what they said is true? The goal
here is to find something you can agree on so you can work your way to a common understanding. An
example that comes to mind is the employee you supervise is upset because the job is changing and
something they once did well, they are now struggling to keep up. While feeling frustrated and anxious
that their job is in jeopardy, they may say, “ You no longer care about quality, only quantity, what about
the customers?” You can agree that yes the job is changing and the skills that were required in this
position years ago have been modified to include being efficient as well as courteous. That simple step of
agreeing rather than telling them this isn’t true will put you in a position to demonstrate understanding
and compassion. Once you have that common understanding, you can ask, “I have noticed that you are
struggling, what can I do to support you?”
There may be things that you really need to address with them as to what was your actual intention
when they mistook something you said or did. It is alright to clarify that with them but again avoid trying
to “be right” or “win”. This is not about right/wrong, good/bad, win/lose. Find common ground, what
can you agree on, how can you work together given your differences.? I have found that there is always
some common ground that you can both agree. Once you both are conversing it will be easier to get to
the points that are concerning to you such as low work performance jeopardizing their job. It is
important to show understanding, support and willingness to work together to resolve the issue.
Conflicts between team members may have to do with them having different strengths. Knowing each
other’s strengths and how they can complement each other is a sure path to common ground. Members
of the team with different strengths may not understand why team members with different strengths from
them act the way they do. Once team members understand actions are not personal simply a difference
in style and intent, then they can learn to appreciate each others strengths and partner to meet the
department goals, resolve customer issues & reach objectives.
Once you reach a point of dialogue and being proactive in your communication with them, it is important
to keep the door open to continued dialogue. Remember to follow-up.
T – time line for continued discussions are critical to maintaining the relationship, the progress
you made and trust you are beginning to build. Form a partnership with them. This can be done by
setting up regular times to meet. Remember to keep the scheduled time or follow-up to arrange a
reschedule. This is a good time to make some agreements about what each of you will do to maintain
the open communication. What are some things that each of you will agree to do in order to make the
relationship work? Whatever you decide, make certain you both agree. If you agree on a month, yet after
two weeks things seem to be going astray, close the gap and find a time to meet right away to discuss
what happened. Depending upon the relationship, choose an appropriate interval of time. A common
approach would be once a week or every other week. A month may be too long. One don’t, would be to
open up communication and then let it slip back to silence.
You have just learned a little about Proactive Conversations and ways to manage conflict. I would like to
close with some reminders on paying attention to your feelings, intentions and motivations in these
To pull this off, there are a couple of things you will want to keep in mind. How we approach others, what
we say, how we say it tells people a lot about us. You want to examine your objectives. Let’s go through
some recommended do’s and don’ts.
Take responsibility for your feelings and test them first, really consider what is causing you to feel the
way you do. Then ask yourself, “Is this true”? Often we come up with the story we are telling ourselves.
When speaking to others stick to facts, what you actually saw or heard – be accurate. Be mindful of
your voice, tone, facial expressions.
More than anything, people want to be heard, remember to listen, try to imagine how you would feel if
you were in their shoes. Don’t interrupt, no need to take notes on what you want to say next, just listen
to them, ask short brief clarifying questions if needed. If you miss something you can always go back
and ask, “Did I cover all your concerns?”
If you learn you have really offended someone (in their eyes) then apologize. Directly and succinctly. I am
sorry you feel I offended you, that was not my intention. Then ask a short brief question to allow them
to say anything more they need to say. “Is there anything else you think I should know?”
Okay, I need to say something here, I know what you are thinking, you did not get into all of this to have
someone blame you for something you don’t think you did and now all the reasons you avoided this
conversation are coming up again. Well, really these conflicts, misunderstandings, uncomfortable
situations, take two. You may not have had any idea your actions came across to someone that way
they feel it did. That is okay, just say that was not your intention and that it won’t happen again. Then it
is important to make sure it does not happen again.
As Stephen Covey reminds us, “seek first to understand, then to be understood. Take it in — listen from
a neutral place. Just listen for facts, details, their perspective. By being proactive in this conversation,
you can acknowledge yourself for taking a risk and a leap of faith. With this experience behind you, it
will get easier with practice.