How to Handle Conflict

I have to tell you that I’m not great at handling conflict.  I’d much rather have things run smoothly and make sure that everyone gets along, works together, has fun and delivers great results, so when conflict happens I feel awkward and uncomfortable.

I tend to do what I can to set things up ahead of time for smooth sailing, and I’ve really had to work hard at dealing with conflict when and if it arises.  Here’s what I’ve found has worked for me.

1. Don’t make it personal

Sometimes it’s easy to let your emotions get tangled up in things, especially if someone’s disagreeing or even attacking your position.  Anger, blame, hurt and a bunch of other provocative emotions can be at play, and before you know it you’ve got a bigger problem than you ever thought.

Don’t make it personal – people are allowed to disagree with your position, just as you’re allowed to disagree with others.

By all means be passionate, but that’s not the same as being defensive or coming out on the offensive with all guns blazing.  The moment you start taking differences of opinion as personal criticism and judgement (even if that’s exactly what’s being thrown at you) you’ll be on the defensive or offensive, so balance that passion with the facts and a healthy sprinkling of common sense and perspective.

2. Get the facts

There could be facts you need to know about or areas you need to explore before taking action.  Make sure you go deep enough into those areas to figure out the facts of what’s happening, but don’t dwell on detail after detail after detail.

This is often a tricky balance between doing enough due diligence to be informed, checking in with your instincts and leveraging your experience to anticipate the different paths, and it means you have to put a hold on resolving the conflict until all parties can do their due diligence.

Be clear on what do you need to know and the most effective ways to get those answers.  Work that out with an open mind and you’ll be in a stronger position to move forwards.

3. Listen

If you do one thing, make sure you hear everyone and respect their point of view.  This is not the same as understanding everyone’s perspective (that can take a lifetime), but it’s important to have a healthy respect for their position even if you strongly disagree.

Listening demonstrates the value of the relationships you have and that you’re willing to listen and engage with others.  That can speak louder than any amount of yelling.

Also, it might just mean that you discover a way through that hadn’t occurred to you before, giving you the opportunity to use nuggets of gold from different people to create a way forward that’s a workable and effective compromise.

4. Simple assertion

You have the right to be treated with respect and consideration, and coolly asserting that right is a powerful strategy.

To do that you need to watch that things don’t get overly complex – the more complicated you make things the more complex it’ll be for people to unravel and the more complex it’ll be to communicate clearly.  Keep things simple (jot down bullet points if it helps) and figure out the simplest, most effective way to move forwards.

If you’re in a leadership position there’s often a point where the debate needs to be over, and you need to communicate that in a way that engages rather alienates.  You might not have all the answers, but you need to be confident enough to be able to make a good decision.  Then your job is to let people know coolly, simply and unambiguously what the facts are, the way forwards and what’s expected.

5. Be ready to be wrong

If you’re wrong, admit it.  Don’t hang on to your position just for the sake of wanting to be right – that’ll just get you into more hot water, is sure to waste everyone’s time and will probably end up with you looking or feeling silly.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking being wrong is undesirable, it isn’t.  Allowing yourself to be wrong shows that you’re switched on enough to do the best thing for all concerned and find the best route through.  It demonstrates that you’re lead by integrity and are willing to take on new ideas if they work better, even if that flies in the face of what you were thinking previously.

Be ready to be wrong – that’s how you grow.

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