Updated: May 19, 2021
"Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional." Max Lucade
As a coach, conflict comes up again and again. There are very few people who relish conflict, even among the most senior leaders. Most of us dread the thought of those challenging and difficult conversations where we are on a very different page from someone else.
For many leaders I work with, worrying about difficult conversations with their CEO, peers or team can take up a lot of time and energy.
But a disagreement doesn’t need to mean conflict. In fact, disagreement can be really healthy. We need different viewpoints and approaches to keep thinking fresh, and to generate innovation. And by getting more comfortable with disagreements, we can make sure that they’re productive.
Here are some suggestions that may help before, during and after a difficult conversation.
What’s your frame? So, you’re dreading this meeting. Why? You've already decided it’s going to be uncomfortable - what evidence do you have for that? Instead of thinking “this meeting is going to be horrible”, could you reframe it as “this is an opportunity to think about the issue from a different angle”? Instead of conflict, could this be an opportunity to collaborate?
Be prepared Why does this matter to you? Why do you think your way is the best course of action? What will be the impact of that decision, both positive and negative? What’s your red line? What could you compromise on? If you are very clear about what you want to get out of the conversation, you won’t feel pressured to decide on the spot.
You might also want to write down some non-confrontation phrases that may be useful: “I have a different view, can I tell you about it?” or “Thank you for explaining that, can I explain where I’m coming from on this?” This can help if you “freeze up” during the conversation (see below).
Try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. What do they think, want or feel? You won’t know everything, but if you stop to think, you’ll know something. Are they under a lot of pressure to hit ambitious targets? Have they had a bad experience with this issue in the past? Are they very data-orientated so will be looking for facts and figures? Doing this can help you not only prepare for some likely counter-arguments, but also be an important reminder that they’re only human and dealing with their own pressures, too.
Start with a point of agreement There will always be something on which you agree, so start there: “We both really want this project to be a success” or “I know you value accuracy as much as I do”. Even if it’s a comment on how awful the weather is, a bit of human connection can ground the meeting positively at the start.
Listen, and reflect back Nothing makes most people angrier than feeling that they’re not being listened to. Taking the time to really listen to what the other person is saying will diffuse almost any situation. Hear them out, and then demonstrate that you’ve listened by reflecting what they said back to them: “You’re worried that if we go ahead with this, there will be an impact on your team further down the line.” This shows that you respect their views, and it should make it impossible for them to not show you the same courtesy.
Recognise your fight/flight/freeze response. When we feel under attack, our body responds. Our adrenaline spikes and we feel what is termed the flight/fright/freeze response. What is happening is that our brain is shutting down the part that does the thinking, so that we can focus on responding to the threat. But of course, this is not at all helpful if you are trying to think of an intelligent response to an aggressively made point. Understanding and recognising what is happening here is useful as it will hopefully mean you feel less panicked. If you can, take a few seconds to take some deep breaths to let your brain know you’re not in immediate danger.
Try not to take things personally. Being defensive is a sure fire way to shut down a discussion. It's very easy to feel that you are being personally criticised, or that your experience is being undermined. But is that really the case? Is that what has been said? Or are you making assumptions and assuming the worst?
Ask for more time if you need it. It’s absolutely fine to say “I hear what you’re saying. Do you mind if I take some time to think about this some more and then we can speak again?” Not everyone does their best thinking on the spot, and if things are getting heated a bit of time-out can be very helpful.
Look for the win-win. Collaboration isn’t weakness. Be willing to consider a different way of doing things - is there an option that you would both be comfortable with? Strong leadership isn’t about always digging your heels in - you need to be able to focus on your shared goals and the common good.
Take some time to reflect. If you found the conversation difficult, take some time to reflect on why. What was it that you found challenging? What was the trigger? Did you feel that one of your values was being compromised? Or were you feeling personally criticised? What was said that made you feel that way? What is the evidence that was happening? What would you do differently next time? Jot down some notes, to help you prepare for the next time.
Keep working on the relationship. Productive disagreements are underpinned by respect. If a discussion has been difficult, a short email to say “I appreciate that it wasn’t an easy conversation, but thank you for taking the time to have it, and I respect what you are trying to achieve” can go a long way. Take every opportunity to maintain and build that respect and understanding, and even if you’ll never be friends, each time you disagree it will get easier.
Not all of these will work for everyone, or in every situation, but I hope some will be helpful to you. Please let me know if so.
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