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April 19, 2013 11:30 AM | James Milliken

The very idea of conflict is awful. It causes discomfort, sometimes pretty intense discomfort.

If I give in to a contentious person, or back off because I don’t want to get into an argument, I feel like dirt afterward – the doormat syndrome. Anyone who witnessed the attack and defeat/retreat may well sympathize, but they often lose respect for me anyway.

If I fight back, I join in the ill-tempered exchange, maybe descending into loud, personal and petty insult. I say things I may be sorry for later, and I deepen whatever antagonism caused the situation to start with. Maybe I trigger antagonism where there actually had been just thoughtlessness or impatience. And anyone within earshot will have an even lower opinion than if I had just stayed silent.

Conflict can be awful. That’s why it actually happens so infrequently – most people avoid it at all costs. The few people who live life in the attack mode frequently get away with it because of people’s acquiescence. Most of those around them see no way to win, and/or just flee the tension.

We’d all be better off if there were more conflict.

Not the poisonous conflict of the failed situations just described, but constructive disagreement in which competing good ideas contest in an open forum. Failing that, we need to get competent in squelching the ugly ones.

Mature people should feel free to say what they think, and should in turn be fully open to hearing ideas they don’t agree with. They commit to participating seriously in the development of consensus outcomes. Creative progress and problem solving make for a healthy organization, and the more free participation there is, the better.

There will be disagreement in such a place, and it can become heated. Bruce Tuckman’s famous formula for development of high-performance teams (Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing) tells us that conflict is essential to getting full benefit of the talents and knowledge of the members of a group.

For the individual, conflict management is a matter of specific behaviors driven by forethought and discipline, the same personal virtues that we should try to cultivate as a general philosophy of our worklife.

Start with the thinking: Get rid of any hope or expectation that conflict avoidance is possible, or even desirable. Not that you should go looking for fights. You should, though, go assertively into situations that show promise in the matters you care about. Focus on the idea, and follow a constructive, collaborative process toward it.

At the same time, study and practice the skills of relationship management. Be prepared for what other people may say or do, and for the constant possibility of unpredictable objections and misunderstandings. Remind yourself that some people are going to erupt in emotional reactions, often at unexpected times in surprising ways. Try never to get caught off guard.

Once there is human engagement, the prime demand is for listening. The universal solvent of human barriers is active listening, the continuous focus of the mind on the other person. What is really meant, whatever the visible manner and stream of words? Where is the ground, however narrow, that provides a base of common interest and potential agreement?

My body language is a top communication tool in any personal exchange, and most definitely is important in conflict situations. Visualize a person standing in the face of a tirade, looking calmly, steadily at the attacker, speaking soothing words you can’t even hear.

I am alert and respectful. I am not uptight or threatening, nor am I worried or fearful. I’m not going to preach or lecture about behavior – I am persistent in encouraging constructive movement toward a mutually useful outcome.

If things get to the point where nothing good can be accomplished, I have prepared myself with the words and actions to suspend the exchange with a plan to resume after a suitable period for cooling off, reflection and maybe some homework or consultation. I am neither insulting nor patronizing to the offending party. I act almost as if nothing untoward had happened.

I try to make sure, as we part company, that I have planted a useful thought or two about what we might talk about when we meet tomorrow afternoon.

Knowledgeable preparation and competent engagement. So much better than avoidance and discomfort.

The full spectrum of management challenges and skills is explored in dozens of posts at

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