Managing Conflict

Effective conflict management is such a key career (and life) advantage. As we have watched some of the most dramatic conflicts unfold over the last few years, it underscores how important it is to be proactive in taking responsibility in conflict resolution, now more than ever, professionally, and personally.

I spoke recently with Liz Kislik about conflict at work on a Modern Career podcast episode.

Liz is a management consultant, executive coach and frequent contributor to HBR and Forbes.  Her TEDx “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do To Fix It” has been viewed more than 200,000 times. 

Liz says conflict is a natural part of work and life that can stem from all types of personal misunderstandings, differences of opinion, unclear roles and responsibilities or underlying tensions.

Work situations themselves can be tense and our current context is amplifying that.  Between working remotely, juggling family responsibilities, managing stress, change, economics and health to navigating politics organizationally and more broadly…is bound to create tensions.  The more recent ‘return to work’ has also been causing much anxiety in employees and leaders alike.  If we are already tense about something, we are more likely to get into conflict or to think there is a conflict on the horizon and ‘arm ourselves’. This can definitely get in our way.

Liz contends, “Being able to manage conflict in a productive way is not only a career advantage, it also yields benefits in our personal lives as well. Those who are masters at the art of conflict management recognize the patterns as they are emerging and are able to address issues sooner”.

When a conflict occurs, Liz shares, there are 3 major steps that are critical to follow: Be aware; Lower the temperature and Recover.

Be Aware.  Our bodies, she says, recognize we are in conflict before we do.  Be aware of your own and others’ body cues…sweat, heat in face, neck, clenching of shoulders, etc.  Tuning in to these allows for addressing conflict earlier. It’s helpful to understand the social cues, read the room and understand others and your own body and vocal signals. This can be more challenging virtually than in person. If you feel or see anger, it’s probably not a great time to continue a discussion.  Acknowledge what has caused the flare and that it exists is the best thing to do and agree to break and reengage when cooler.

We all also have different styles and approaches to dealing with conflict. Some may pretend nothing’s wrong because they don’t want to engage.  Those who engage, have a variety of styles; some more negative (silence, anger, cold or cutting) and some more constructive.

Liz states it is important to be aware your own and others’ styles in order to shift things more constructively.  Liz highlighted what she calls the ‘Rule of 3’ – where you recognize a pattern of something occurring three times.  It could be an email exchange or the same verbal exchange on a subject that suggests it’s a good time to stop and look at what’s going on here and examine it differently. Liz states “If you go back and forth three times on something, it’s no longer a discussion, it’s an argument”.

Lower the temperature. We need to harness all techniques that work for us individually. Keeping a cool and calm presence allows us to share differences and focus on the real problem versus seeing the other as the enemy. Being able to state and work on issues calmly creates more room for openness and possibility.

Liz shares three key techniques:  First, calming your body -not just in your head, by pressing your feet solidly in your shoes, and spending a few seconds to notice your feet pressing into the surface which ‘grounds you’ and connects you back, allowing space, breath and calming.  Second, breathing in a way that extends your exhalation -where your out-breath is longer than your in-breath.  And third, in times when tensions are escalating it helps to take a quick break -maybe for a glass of water or any other reason to break from the conflict allowing the temperature to drop so that more reasonable (and as the saying goes ‘more cooler’) heads can prevail.

Recover. Repairing and recovering from conflict can be both formal and informal.  After a conflict, it’s important to check on the other person.  Liz shares that anyone can do this and it only makes sense to apologize for your part and behavior.  “It is important to offer the appropriate olive branch to restore the relationship. This may seem like an obvious action, but this might be the difference between accelerating towards harmony or only glossing over the conflict. It might also be the difference to really finding common ground with no repeat tension and in some cases can lead to a newly formed strong bond.  The going back signals a formal repair mode”.

The informal part is about rebuilding the relationship in a human sense.  John Gotman, renowned scholar talks about making a ‘bid for attention’.  He suggests opening a future conversation with something of mutual interest, or connection point so the other person can connect back creating a bridge.  If you can forgive you are carrying less baggage around as it is a high energy cost otherwise.

One of the key nuggets from my discussion with Liz Kislik is to hold fast to the tenant that people aren’t the problem, the problem is the problem. It helps to extract the personal and focus on addressing the underlying issues. What are we really solving for?

We often treat the person as the problem because they are the messenger and we can erroneously think ‘fixing the person’ is easier than the underlying problem.

Know when the conversation is all about the people involved -get beyond in order to address the real issues and then anything with those involved.

By taking a step back and looking again at what you are trying to accomplish, look at your purpose, your relationship, your values can often put you back on firmer ground.

Another key to effectively managing conflict and recovering is having a practice of thinking about and asking for ‘What is going unsaid?” Great questions to ask to do this are:

Is there anything else we need to put on the table? 

Are there people we haven’t heard from yet? 

Are there things we haven’t considered yet?

Has everyone gotten to say whatever they need to say to have explored all the issues?

In my experience as CHRO in several organizations, I have learned that conflict comes up so often and can get in the way of people being able to do good work.  If we can get focused on the problem and not personalities or the people involved, we can effectively address anything.    Otherwise, we get stuck in what Liz calls ‘a constant state of Inflammation’.  Not healthy and the problem itself gets neglected.

We can’t just walk down the hall anymore (for now) and connect live.  We have to find other ways and make time for connection and relationship as the bedrock so if something does go wrong, we can repair it.

Being able to manage conflict well is not only good for the soul, but also for your career, your life and all of your relationships.  By resolving conflicts in a more effective way, you are enabled to collaborate better with co-workers, build stronger relationships that will serve you well.  Nothing good comes from letting conflict fester.  The ultimate goal of conflict, after all, is resolution.

For more tips on Conflict Management list to our podcast: Episode 16: Navigating Conflict with Liz Kislik | Modern Career (

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