Tackling Conflict, One Question at a Time

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Conflict is challenging, especially when people are involved. Emotions can overtake rationality and cloud our vision. On the other hand, we have to understand that the person on the other side is also processing emotion which could cause them to withdraw or become irrational. As leaders, we have to remember that emotions are human and ignoring the way people feel isn’t the right approach. Instead, we must find a way to acknowledge feelings while balancing rationality.

So how do you strike that delicate balance and come out of the conversation with positive outcomes that build trust in the relationship? Throughout my time as a leader, I have had countless challenging conversations. Each time I learn something new and I reflect on the conversation and make notes about what I would do differently. While each challenging conversation is different, with practice, patience, the intent to serve the other person, and the desire to understand instead of change someone’s mind, you can tackle any conversation.

More often than not, conflict comes down to miscommunication. As leaders we have to engage in active listening (remember the 80/20 rule) to get to the root of the issue and we have to be willing to take ownership for our faults in the conflict. I’ve found that just asking questions and listening to the other person is the key moving past the conflict. Chip and Dan Heath, discuss how to change things when change is hard in their bestselling book, Switch. After all, things have to change to resolve the issue. The Heath brothers outline three reasons why change is difficult:

  1. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
  3. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

When I recognize conflict, I immediately take a step back and try to pinpoint which of the three reasons listed above could be causing the conflict. Upon taking time to think about the situation objectively, the answer will often reveal itself. As the leader, it is our role to then create a roadmap to fix the problem. In order to effectively tackle the issue, allow yourself time to reflect and prepare. When we slow down, we remove our fight or flight reaction, and instead allow rationality to prevail. Leaders that truly care about serving their people work to ensure they can lead the conversation in a productive manner that will result in a stronger relationship.

Part of preparation is reading the three points above. Next, I reflect on what I have done and I could have done differently. Then, I try to think about what the other person may be thinking or feeling. The final part of my preparation is writing down a list of questions that I’d like to ask and take a deep breathe. My intent isn’t to integrate the other person or to change their mind, my focus is on understanding their point of view and finding a way to make things better in the future. For example:

  • You seem distant, is there something I have done?
  • What can I do to improve?
  • How would you prefer to receive feedback in the future?

If the person shares that I didn’t handle the situation well, I apologize and acknowledge that I will do better next time. Showing genuine humility is a key cornerstone of leadership. I generally follow up by asking how the person would have liked the situation to have unfolded. By asking this question, it allows for a deeper dialogue and helps me understand how they like to be led and moving forward I can tailor my approach to meet their needs.

When the person responds to a question that doesn’t fully register with me, I ask another question to seek understanding. Again, the goal shouldn’t be to prove the person wrong or to “win” the argument. The goal should be to understand the other perspective. As a leader, approach the situation with an open mind and engage in actively listening, you’ll be able to provide clarity and remove the resistance.

After years of practice, I’ve come to enjoy these conversations because it often means the opportunity to improve, the chance to strengthen the relationship and build deeper trust. To get to this place, I had to shift to a growth mindset. The truth is open communication can solve almost any problem. It just takes awareness, the willingness to listen, and the ability to find common ground. Don’t wait to tackle an interpersonal conflict, dive in and work to make things better.

What tips do you have tackling challenging conversations? Leave a comment.

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