January 16, 2018

6 Dos and Don’ts for Handling Conflict


Article by Nate Regier

How conflict is handled separates great leaders from leadership liabilities. Poor leaders mishandle conflict in three predictable ways:

1. They Give In

Conflict is difficult and often scary. It challenges your sense of self, your confidence, and your security in your relationships. Leaders who give in let conflict paralyze them. They play it safe to keep the peace, compromise to avoid discomfort, and sidestep direct conversations for fear of rejection. These leaders send the message that conflict is bad for relationships and should be avoided.

2. They Give Unsolicited Advice

Conflict introduces a different kind of energy and can disrupt progress. It’s natural to see conflict as a nuisance that simply needs to be addressed. Some leaders lose perspective during conflict, thinking it is their job to save the day by telling everyone else what to do. They offer advice and solutions without being invited, thereby reinforcing boundary problems and dependence. They send the message that conflict is but a problem to be solved, and they think they have the answer.

3. They Give Ultimatums

Conflict results from a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing. It is tempting to believe the myth that others are responsible for the conflict, and therefore they are the ones who need to change. Leaders who buy into this myth have no problem giving ultimatums. They believe it is okay to threaten people as a way to close the gap. They send the message that fear, intimidation, and manipulation are acceptable ways to get others to shape up.

In contrast, great leaders don’t see conflict as a threat or a problem. Great leaders see conflict as a source of energy and a powerful opportunity to be leveraged. Here is what great leaders do when conflict comes knocking:

1. They Open Up

ConversationGreat leaders aren’t afraid to share their feelings about a conflict. They open up to themselves and others by acknowledging the discomfort. They are willing to name their emotions and experiences, and they give others permission to do the same. By doing this, great leaders send the message that conflict is difficult, and that’s okay. Opening up has the added benefit of revealing deeper desires and wants, which makes it much easier to address the root causes of conflict.

When great leaders open up, they may say things like:

– “I care deeply about this relationship and am worried about where things are going.”
– “I am anxious, too. Mergers have so many unknowns.”
– “It’s okay to be angry.”

2. They Get Curious

Most people adopt a position during conflict, which leads to polarization. Great leaders do just the opposite: They get curious and show a nonjudgmental interest in their own perspectives and the perspectives of others. Great leaders don’t worry about who is right or wrong. Instead, they focus on understanding and learning. They seek first to understand, not to be understood. They ask open-ended questions, instead of looking for exceptions or reiterating their own point of view. Great leaders say things like:

– “What information would be most helpful for you?”
– “I would like to check some assumptions. May I share them with you and get your perspective?”
– “I’m really curious about your perspective. Will you share more?”

3. They Focus on What Matters

Many people facing conflict get distracted from the real issues. They focus so much on content that they lose sight of what really matters. Or, they decide that everything matters, which creates an impossible dilemma for everyone.

Great leaders are able to step back, get perspective, and clarify for themselves what really matters. They can separate the “what” from the “why.” They know that behind most negative behavior is a positive, unmet need. Meeting that need and addressing bigger issues of respect, dignity, and emotional safety are the keys to lasting solutions. When principles, boundaries, and values are at stake, great leaders are able to focus on the one or two that are most relevant. Examples could include:

– “Ultimately, I want to protect the trust of our stakeholders. I’ll support whatever we can do to achieve that.”
– “I can tell how important decision-making autonomy is for you. I want to balance that with consistency in results, and I am in 100 percent.”
– “For me, it boils down to transparency. I don’t want to do anything that undermines my credibility with the board of directors.”

Conflict is a great source of energy for leaders who know how to use it. By learning to open up, get curious, and focus on what matters, leaders can avoid the casualties of conflict and leverage it for positive results.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Dr. Nate Regier is the cofounder, owner, and chief executive of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in leadership communication. A former practicing psychologist, Dr. Nate Regier has a doctorate in clinical psychology. He is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, team-building, and change management. An international advisor, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer, Process Communication Model certifying master trainer, and co-developer of Next Element’s Leading Out of Drama training and coaching.

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