One of the biggest modern workplace challenges is dealing with conflict—how can we strongly disagree about complex issues while maintaining trusting relationships? How can we get along despite our differences? How can we not throw chairs, staplers, or hard hats at each other when we really, really, really want to?

As Harvard philosophy professor, Michael Sandel, points out, to make progress in society and in our organizations, we must be able to talk through fundamental disagreements about our beliefs and values. To do so we need a foundation of civility and respect. The problem isn’t the topic, it is how we go about talking to each other about it. When we don’t talk about the underlying values in any conflict, we struggle to find a resolution and often get emotionally hijacked in the process. Values are an emotional minefield for us—pluck a core value and we go into an instant fight or flight response . . . hence the urge to throw a stapler at someone’s head.

Our toughest conflicts are often rooted in feeling threatened—so how do we reduce the threat? In their book, Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler describe the need to make conversations safe—safe enough that people can be real and honest, and not feel hijacked. It is a careful way of managing our fight or flight response so we can talk about emotionally charged issues. The authors argue that conversations skills can be learned, especially when we all understand how to do so.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Pay attention to how you are feeling before, during, and after the conversation—and choose to stay calm. Leadership starts with us; if you get hijacked, you will hijack the other person.   If you stay calm, they are more likely to calm down if things get heated.
  2. Assume positive intent, even when it’s difficult. Remember they are an imperfect human being who is probably trying to do what they think is best. It’s always good to ask yourself “Why would a reasonable human being think/act this way?”
  3. Ask questions—not pointed, accusatory questions, but open and curious questions. These will likely result in a dialogue, not a verbal tennis match.
  4. Do a lot of rephrasing to make sure you heard them correctly and that you understand their point of view.
  5. Be as clear as you can, and share factual, observable information. Your goal is to agree on the issues, and ultimately the solutions, if possible.
  6. State what you want. Ask what they want. Find a middle ground.
  7. Complex issues are rarely one and done. You may need to try again. And again. And again.
  8. If things go badly, see #7.
  9. If things go well, praise the other person and give yourself a mental high-five. You earned it.

Keep looking for ways to have a good fight—a fight that is productive, where we wrestle with deep fundamental issues, and we can walk away from and feel good about ourselves and others.



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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