GG #27: Master the art of conflict

Alexandra Reese’s Growth Guide.

Actionable insights to improve your leadership, life, and impact.

“ It’s about shifting the agenda from, ‘I’ve got to get this short term result’ to ‘I’ve got to build the right connections and strength and relationships to enable us to deliver results sustainably over time.’ ”

This is among my favorite quotes from today’s episode of Empowered Leadership . It reflects one better practice for productive conflict (see #2 below), which is a passion I share with this week’s guest, Jamie Waltz. Jamie is the former Director of Community Services at Multnomah County—an organization with a $200M annual budget—who defies every stereotype of the government bureaucrat.

The topic of productive conflict has been coming up a lot in my conversations with leaders of all stripes. Today’s Growth Guide highlights three better practices for productive conflict that have emerged from these conversations and my client work.

Thank you for being a valued member of my community! If you received the Growth Guide from a friend or colleague, welcome! If you like what you read, you may subscribe here.

Before we dive-in, I have a special invitation for you:

If you know you want to improve your confidence with conflict, Jamie and I have two upcoming workshops on The Art of Conflict , which I’m releasing to subscribers first!
This highly-interactive two hour workshop will empower you to:
* Understand your conflict patterns, and where they come from
* Reduce the stress and pain associated with conflict
* Approach difficult conversations with greater confidence and ease
* Stay calm, present, and in choice of your response to stressful conversations
* Practice several frameworks you can use alone and with your team to cultivate productive conflict
Get the details and sign-up here!

Better practice #1: Normalize conflict

Most people treat conflict like an abnormal problem. They assume it means somebody did something wrong. They assume it means there’s dysfunction. Or they assume that it signals an unhealthy relationship.

Although these assumptions are sometimes true, it’s dangerous to perpetuate them. Doing so etches into your subconscious that conflict is negative. Over time, this will lead you to perceive the mere whiff of conflict as a stressor you should fight or flee. And when you’re in a fight or flight response, it’s impossible to engage productively. Allowing a negative association with conflict to persist will prevent you from having productive conflict.

To improve your conflict skills, you must first change how you perceive conflict. Just as you etched a negative association into your subconscious, you can etch a more positive association to replace it. One approach that has worked well my clients is to normalize conflict.

Remind yourself that conflict will occur anytime two people have assumptions, norms, or expectations that clash. Somebody doesn’t have to make a mistake for there to be conflict. And when conflict arises, consider what differences in assumptions, norms, or expectations could be at play. If you were to assume positive intent on all sides, what could be going on?

It takes time to carve a new groove; you can’t shift your subconscious response to conflict overnight. You can practice normalizing conflict when it arises . Over time, this new narrative will replace the old narrative in your subconscious. When that happens, you’ll notice that conflict —productive or not —will no longer send you into a fight or flight response. You’ll have the ability to stay calm, collected, and in choice of your reaction.

Better practice #2: Change your agenda

I’ve been coaching a lot of leaders through conflict recently, and I’ve observed an interesting trend in how most leaders instinctually approach conflict resolution:
* Identify the problem
* Determine the appropriate solution or course of action
* Map out the conversation(s) they will have to achieve their desired outcome
* Practice the conversation(s), so they can remain as calm, cool, and collected as possible in the face of stress
I see this pattern play-out often in the context of performance issues. Let’s work through an example of a manager who gets negative feedback about their direct report’s presentation skills. A typical course of action for may look like:
* Get additional feedback on the direct report’s presentation skills to confirm and flesh out their understanding of the problem
* Identify the need for training on executive presence
* Outline a feedback conversation with the direct report to share the situation, behavior, impact, and recommended course of action
* Schedule one meeting with the direct report to address the problem and align on the course of action

A solution-oriented approach to conflict resolution is neither incorrect nor bad; it gets results. But it is sub-optimal. It may lead you to miss important information or better courses of action.

In the example I shared above, the manager’s focus on getting to the solution may lead the manager to:
* Rush through the conversation
* Miss asking open-ended questions that would signal an underlying “problem” (e.g., an intellectual disability)
* Miss inviting the direct report into the solutioning process, which could yield a more impactful course of action
* Break trust by unintentionally ignoring signs that their direct report may need to pause or change course in the conversation

When you drive toward a specific outcome, you put blinders on. You naturally filter the information you take-in based on its relevance to your outcome. And you ask and respond to questions to direct conversation toward your outcome. Consequently, you may miss important information that would signal a deeper problem or more relevant course of action.

To get better results, change your agenda from the solution to the relationship. Ask, how could I use this situation to better understand, connect to, and strengthen my relationship with this person? In my and Jamie’s experience, not only does this solution build stronger relationships and teams, but it also yields the same or better situational outcomes (often with more ease).

To hear more about this better practice, including personal stories of hard earned lessons, tune into the latest episode of Empowered Leadership.

Better Practice #3: Regulate your nervous system

Does the anticipation of a difficult conversation fill you with dread? Does the stress of the moment send you into fight, flight, or freeze, regardless of your preparation? Are you often disappointed after, wishing you’d responded differently?

These are common sentiments. I hear them from my clients all the time! They reflect a natural stress response to conflict that, although frustrating, is perfectly normal.

While there are things you can do to reduce the stress associated with conflict (see better practice #1), that work takes time. And it won’t entirely eliminate the stress associated with difficult conversations, especially when you’re in the middle of them and they seem to be going sideways.

If you want to improve how you handle conflict, you need strategies to mitigate your stress response. When you’re in the thick of a stressful situation, it’s best to reach for strategies that regulate your nervous system. When you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, it sends signals to your brain that you are safe. This will enable you to regain your presence, awareness, and control in the moment, so you can tap into your conflict resolution skills.

Two of my favorite strategies are:

Physiological sigh

What it is : A pattern of breathing of two inhales, followed by an extended exhale.

Why it works : This pattern of breathing offloads carbon dioxide, which allows our body to calm down and counter its stress response.

Bilateral stimulation

What it is : A practice of bilateral stimulation (e.g., rhythmically taping your thighs) that triggers the parasympathetic nervous system.

Why it works : This behavior reorients your attention away from the stressor and toward a calming sensation, which signals to your brain you’re safe and can begin countering its stress response.

For more stress mitigation strategies, see my Growth Guide on Nine Strategies to Eliminate Stress .

How do you handle conflict? Do you suffer through it, or do you use it as an opportunity to strengthen relationships?

If you’d like to improve your confidence with conflict, I invite you to join Jamie and me in our Art of Conflict workshop . Or schedule a time to talk . You’d be surprised how much clarity and progress can come from one conversation!

Opportunities to Partner

Growth Guidance
How would it feel to have complete confidence in your vision, strategy, and leadership? How would you show-up differently for yourself, your team, and those you love, if you felt calm, confident, and in-control of your life experience? What could you achieve if you felt engaged and motivated—even when times are tough?

Go ahead, let your imagination run wild. The sky is the limit for you. If you’re willing to put in the work.

When you’re ready to take your leadership, life, and impact to the next level, I’m here to guide you. As your Growth Guide, I’ll work with you (and your team, if desired) to clarify your vision and purpose, set bold goals, build an actionable strategy, and cultivate the mindset, beliefs, and behaviors necessary to achieve sustainable results with confidence, ease, and joy.

I will ask powerful questions that unlock new perspectives and insights. I will listen without judgment. And I will offer external insight, candid feedback, and strategic guidance to inform—not dominate—your decision-making.

Schedule a Consultation.