SKILLS – The Art of Having Difficult Conversations (Part 1 – Formal Conflict Management)

Conflict is a natural part of life. From birth, we are all in constant conflict with the world around us. As a baby, when we have a need, we cry loudly so that hopefully a parent or caretaker will hear us, decipher our shrieks, and translate them into giving us what we want or need. As we grow older, hopefully, we learn that screaming and pitching a fit is not an effective or practical use of communication.

Seemingly, with each new generation, the art of handling conflict becomes more of a dying skill set. The reason it is becoming obsolete begins with what we are teaching our children:

  • That confrontation is bad and should be avoided because it has the potential to hurt other’s feelings.
  • Children are taught, now more than ever, to tattle on others instead of practicing the ability to handle their problems with their peers, this transitions naturally into adulthood with co-workers who seem not to have the ability to keep their confrontations at the lowest level possible.
  • Children are lead to believe that all opinions are essential and should not only be heard without argument but should be nourished to increase “intellectual diversity,” regardless of the views having any factual basis. The problem is that opinions based on feelings and emotions become held in the same regard as statements based on factual evidence. Arguments based on truths and are contrary to a child’s emotional opinion may be perceived as insensitive and quickly become censored.
  • In an increasingly technological world, people can hide behind keyboards and screens to argue their opinions, and even if an argument arises, there is no need for a person to be tactful or to have to think on the spot. From this vantage point, they can merely remain incendiary, anonymous, and aggressive without ever having to prove their reasoning or correct their thinking. This type of arguing leads people to dig in their heels on their initial ideas instead of having the ability to be influenced or influence others.

Whether you like it or not, conflict is not going away, nor should it! Embedded in conflict is the ability to sort out our differences of opinion to create optimized outcomes for society. Conflict combined with reasoning drives progression. Notice that reasoning must be an element in the equation. Having an irrational argument just to argue does nothing to improve society and only makes it more volatile.

The ability for a person to manage conflict, and not run away from it, is a skill that unites people instead of dividing them. People afraid to work out their problems never fix them, and they usually get worse with time. The age-old cliches, “Let’s talk about this…” or “Let’s have a conversation…” comes to mind. Unfortunately, when we add irrationality and the inability to reason to the conversation, no one ever benefits. You cannot argue with an irrational person or group.

One of the most important things you can do to improve yourself is to use every opportunity to have difficult conversations. Like most skills, conflict management must be practiced again and again to gain proficiency. Never shy away from an awkward or fiery conversation. Not having the conversation or attempting to avoid the conflict may seem safe and comfortable, for now, but later on down the road, running away usually opens the door to disaster.

Let’s get started with a blueprint for handling conflict in a professional atmosphere. First, these are the things you want to avoid:

  • Accusations – Never accuse someone of something when you do not have all the details and have not heard their side of the story. Remember, perception is everything, and because you cannot read minds, you must first ask questions and make sure you have the complete picture. Especially avoid phrases like: “You always…” and “You never…”
  • Assumptions – Again, never assume you have another person’s story until you have asked them for it.
  • Handling conflict while angry – Any communication that happens while either party is angry is destined for failure. Anger causes emotions to take over where reasoning should be taking place.
  • Using incendiary terms – Avoid phrases like “I’m not mad” or “You’re not in trouble.” You being mad or them being in trouble might be the farthest thing from their minds until you bring it up.
  • Using passive language – Avoid passive language, especially after you have gotten your point/expectation across such as: “Is that okay?” “Are we okay?” Substitute: “Do you understand my point?” or “Can we come to an agreement on…?”

Now, let’s focus on the formal conflict management process:

  1. Preparation – The first part of preparation is leaving emotions out of the conversation. Never act when you are upset or angry. Take some time to let go of those feelings. Later, you can discuss those emotions, if necessary, stating “It made me very angry when XYZ happened” or “Things like this tend to upset me.” These phrases are not compulsory, but sometimes might help you get an “emotional buy-in” from a person who already respects you and doesn’t want you to be angry or upset. If you do not already have their respect then mentioning these emotions may be ineffective. The second stage of preparation is fact-checking, make sure that the information you bring to the table is as accurate as possible, and remember after asking them questions you may find out you still don’t have enough information. Be prepared to change the course of your conversation quickly. Lastly, make sure you check your biases at the door to ensure you are fair to an individual. Sometimes having a bias against someone will not allow you to see their side of the story.
  2. Setting the stage – There are good and bad locations to handle a conflict. No two conflicts are alike and must be treated differently. A serious conflict might need to be handled in a meeting, at a specific time, and behind closed doors. A less severe conflict might be able to be handled in a less formal atmosphere such as a conversation in a parking lot, or over a round of golf. If you are opening the conversation, then you have the luxury of picking the venue, make sure the venue fits the situation. Always praise in public and counsel in private.
  3. Asking questions – Never begin by telling your side of a story or what you think happened, let the other person tell you. Don’t make any statements until you have exhausted all the questions you can ask.
  4. Identifying discrepancies – After asking questions, you need to either express how a behavior is not meeting your expectations or layout new expectations to address the behavior.
  5. Giving them the “Why” – Giving people expectations is no good unless you back them up with WHY you have these expectations. The best practice is to relate the WHY to them on a personal level. The stronger you can show compassion for someone during the WHY, the more emotional buy-in you can get from them. For example, “The reason we need to do things in an X way is for our safety, I would hate to see you get hurt, and it is important to me that you stay safe.”
  6. Asking for their buy-in – Ask the person “Can we agree that when X happened, it did not meet our expectations?” or “In the future, can I get you to agree to X?”
  7. Relaxing the conversation – Do not beat a dead horse. Once buy-in is achieved, relaxing your body language will allow the person to turn off their fight or flight response. If you are satisfied with your buy-in, you can change the subject altogether to something more lighthearted.
  8. Always document (If you are working in a professional capacity) – Documentation does not have to be formal; it could be a side note in a journal so that if the problem persists, you have an easier time bringing the conversation up again in the future.

The above steps represent the formal process of handling conflict professionally. This process may not work in all types of situations, but is a functional guideline for many types of confrontation. In further posts, I will go over more kinds of difficult conversations.