This guide contains everything you need to know about dealing with conflict, disagreements, and other difficult conversations – be it at work or outside it.

How to listen well.

Why conflicts are natural?

What to do, and what not to do when dealing with conflicts?

And what to do if nothing else works?

With that, here are the steps:

  1. Why Conflicts Are Natural And Should Be Expected?
  2. How We Form Our Different Perspectives?
  3. Can We Use The Energy in Conflict Productively?
  4. How To Build Empathy?
  5. How To Prepare For A Difficult Conversation?
  6. How To Communicate During A Tough Conversation?
  7. What If You Can’t Find A Solution?

1. Why Conflicts Are Natural And Should Be Expected?

CONFLICT!

Is that a word that scares you? Is that something that makes you run in the opposite direction? Do you wish you had the skills to handle conflicts better?

If you are like most people, you are no fan of conflicts and have often been caught up in the maze of a conflict. I certainly have, and I can honestly attest that conflict (or the fear of it) has given me many sleepless nights.

Human Beings Do Not Think or Feel Alike. Conflicts are Natural.

Wherever there is life, there is conflict. Every species on this planet experiences conflict in its fight for survival. Plants and animals strive for limited food, space, and mates in the wild, often giving rise to conflict. Humans are much more complex. In addition to food, space, and sex; we want power, fame, and money; giving rise to even more conflicts.

Conflicts are a natural order of life, and if we step back and see the bigger picture, there is nothing unexpected around them. They are inevitable when we work with people who speak different languages, come from different cultures and countries, and have different values and beliefs.

Conflicts and Disagreements Should Be Expected.

Today we live in a world driven by democratic and secular values (in most countries). If you don’t see any conflicts, perhaps people are not speaking up enough, and that I believe is a bigger problem for any society or organisation.

In democratic societies, differences of opinion are not only expected but it is also a duty of each citizen to express himself without fear or hesitation. I believe that having diversity in thought is a strength, and knowing how to manage conflicts becomes a critical skill to learn if we are to live and work in such an environment.

Blame And Finger Pointing Doesn't Work
You Can Do Better Than Blaming, Playing Victim, and Boosting Your Ego

2. How We Form Our Different Perspectives?

Conflicts don’t occur because of different perceptions, not exactly. Rather, conflicts occur because of our inability to step outside of our own perspective and acknowledge the other person’s point of view. If you can’t take a moment to walk in another person’s shoes, how on earth are you going to reach any kind of accord or understanding with them?

And this is why I believe that seeing and understanding different points of view is a superpower for those who possess it. Friction should be between points of view, not between people, and certainly not between organizations and nations. Empathy allows us to escape unnecessary stress from friction in relationships.

Celebrating Difference, Loving Friction

Every great human accomplishment has come out of differing opinions and the energy generated by healthy friction. Seeing things from different perspectives can allow us to create something better than anyone could on their own.

Taking the time to step into the other person’s shoes is the very necessary first step we must take to engage in productive conversations, iron out our differences without making things personal, and reach a win-win solution/agreement. To not do so out of defensiveness or fear is to invite unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding.

Conflicts Are Not About Right or Wrong. Usually Both Sides Are Right.

In almost every conflict I have seen, both sides are right. There is no wrong side. Conflicts are about different perspectives, and each perspective is valid for the one holding it. A perspective becomes right or wrong only when we get attached to a particular point of view.

Can we see that we are all seeking to express the truth as we see it? Can we acknowledge that everyone sees the world differently and form their own perception of events? Conflicts happen not because of different perceptions, but because of our inability to acknowledge another’s point of view.

Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. – Will Rogers

How We Form Our Different But Equally Valid Versions of Reality?

The first thing we must do is to take a pause and ponder about how we form our truth in the first place. We (human beings) gather inputs from our five senses – smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste. Anything which is external reaches us via one of the senses. We touch something which is hot, and we “know” it is dangerous and not safe. We hear something from multiple people or from a reliable source, and are inclined to believe it as truth”.

Once we collect the sensory information from the outside world, our brain makes sense of it. It decides which signals to pay more attention to and which to ignore. Our brains also apply the collective influence of our memories, beliefs, thoughts, and values to every new information, and derive meaning from it. I already wrote about Listening Filters and how they create the “truth“. For example – Growing up in a very hierarchical corporate culture (and society) in India, it still takes effort on my part to see and interact with people above me on the corporate ladder as peers in Amsterdam.

Every decision we make, whether it is trivial or a life-changing one, depends on how we assess the situation. Our listening filters help us create this assessment, which in turn limits the options in front of us. If two people act differently in the same situation, the difference is in their assessment of it. Reality is the shaky foundation on which we all rest our decisions.

The important thing to realize here is that the “truth” we form by the above process is only “our” truth and not the absolute truth. Realizing that different people can see and create their own truth in the same situation is the key to working together more productively. Seeing our own truth as a ‘perspective‘ instead of the truth leads to humility and a willingness to consider other perspectives.

Unless we step down from the high pedestal of truth we often end up placing ourselves on, we can’t see all the other perspectives out there. I believe there are (at least) five different perspectives that can offer tremendous insights to us. However, it is not always easy, nor are we often willing, to view a situation from these perspectives. They might lead to some uncomfortable moments, but the process can often result in new insights and learnings. These not only can lead to better results but also help us become more human in the process.

3. Can We Use The Energy in Conflict Productively?

Conflicts are like a flowing river. If left unchecked, they can cause flooding and destruction. But if we can build a dam and channel the water in the right direction, we can turn it into electricity.

The same thing applies to conflicts. The only question is – Can we use the energy in conflict productively? Can we channel this energy into productive conversations that can lead to creative solutions and better results?

Millions of years of evolution have taught our bodies to react in a certain manner to external threats. In moments of stress, our bodies react by releasing chemicals like cortisol that increase the heart rate. 

This is often termed as “amygdala hijacking” by psychologists. As a result, we often overreact or behave irrationally. Basically, the neurochemical interactions in the brain make it even harder to think straight and behave rationally.

I believe being ready for tough conversations makes us better equipped to face challenges in life. When done in the right manner, difficult conversations have the potential to enhance a relationship.

However, if we can’t control the energy in a conflict, it can result in damage (stress, frustration, bad results) and lost opportunity.

Healthy disagreement creates friction and energy. If we look back at history we will find that every great accomplishment has come out of differing opinions of people who have found a way to work together.

In every conflict, if we are willing to do the hard work required to navigate through it, we can turn them into an advantage instead of something to be avoided. Conflicts can be the bedrock upon which great successes and deep relationships can be built.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi

4. How to Build Empathy?

Creating a safe environment is the first step in creating empathy. When people feel safe, trust builds, and people interact with each other without being suspicious. This interaction breeds cooperation, which is key for any organization’s success. Without trust, it is difficult to bring people together.

Like any skill, empathy can be learned and it gets better over time with practice. You can do this by creating a safe environment that values empathy over blame. Always encourage your team members to listen first, and then express their concerns without holding back.

For example, you can ask “You don’t seem yourself today. Would you like to take a break and chat?”, or “I would hate to see you burn out. Are you taking care of yourself? Is there anything I can do?”. Simple statements like these can go a long way in showing your care for people as human beings.

A few words, said at the right time, can make a world of difference. And we all have the power to make a difference by practicing empathetic listening and noticing emotional cues. You never know what your support at the right moment might mean for someone else. 

Asking the right questions and sincerely listening will help you see things from others’ points of view. Consciously expressing your care can help people understand their own emotions better and make our relationships more meaningful.

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

― M. Scott Peck

Here is how you can do so:-

  • Pay Attention – Be fully present without distractions when in the company of others.
  • Active Listening – Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and just take in what the other person is saying.
  • Don’t Interrupt – Even with the best intentions, saying things like, ‘It’ll get better,’ or ‘It’s not that bad’ diminish the other person’s problems and may cause them to shut down. Avoid doing that.
  • Make It About them, Not You – Resist the urge to speak. Use filler words like “umm”, “and”, and “tell me more” to hear them out fully before speaking.
  • Be Open and Vulnerable – Empathy is a two-way street. We make these connections by sharing our own vulnerabilities and struggles. Don’t be afraid to open up.

The latest neuroscience research has found that the hormone oxytocin reduces fear and increases trust and empathy in the workplace. If you are wondering why trust is important, it leads to 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more life satisfaction, and 40% less burnout.

Can you put anger to productive use?
Can you put conflicts to productive use?

5. How To Prepare For A Difficult Conversation?

While there are no defined rules for handling difficult conversations, I have found that these four crucial steps can make a big difference.

1. Set the Right Context The right conversation in the wrong context is the wrong conversation. The first step is to set the right context for the discussion. The best leaders know how to set the tone of the conversation and guide it towards the desired outcome. Without context, we tend to react to what is being said rather than considering the bigger picture in mind.

The right context helps keep the focus on what is really important.  The right context also helps to understand the social, psychological, cultural threads that are involved in the conversation. Have the discussion privately by creating a safe and congenial environment. You can also set up some mutually agreed ground rules to avoid misunderstandings and stick to the facts.

2. To clearly perceive an issue, you need to also understand the perspective of others. The freedom to speak your mind includes a duty to listen and understand the other person’s perspective. Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to see the situation from his point of view. Acknowledge the validity of the different perspectives without making anyone perspective right or wrong.

Good leaders know that healthy arguments can be an integral part of creative problem-solving. The important thing is not to get stuck by the disagreement but to look deeper and understand what both parties really care about. Conflicts arise in a difficult conversation when we fail to understand what is important to the other person.

3. Mutual respect is to a conversation what oxygen is to humans. Take it out and the conversation dies. Being respectful goes much beyond the use of “please” and “thank you” in a conversation. True respect lies in understanding, courtesy, and kindness for another’s opinions. For this, there are two important steps.

Firstly, you should listen to the other person without criticizing or indulging in any form of personal attack. Secondly, you need to be aware of how you are treating the other person. No two people are the same, so understanding their individual perspectives is very important.

4. Brainstorm Together, Not Against Each Other – A difficult conversation need not be a victory for one and a loss for the other. A conversation is about finding solutions and not about seeking victory for the ego. Rather, it can be an effective brainstorming session for the generation of ideas and finding solutions. At the same time, it should not be a temporary compromise to keep the ball rolling. An open conversation that can explore the root cause of any issue is required to get over an impasse. In reality, when individuals work against each other, the business is the real loser.

Each human being acts like a tuning fork. Every emotion is like a wave, which when reaches others, either accentuates or dies down depending on whether the frequencies match or not. When we learn to master our own emotions, it will dampen any emotional waves and allows collaboration, even in the face of disagreement. We can strengthen our relationships with others, even in the most stressful and difficult situations.

5. Prepare your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiable Agreement) – The BATNA is your lower boundary, the minimum you are willing to get out of the conversation. Knowing your BATNA increases your negotiating power. When you enter a conversation knowing your BATNA, that gives you assurance and confidence. If nothing else works, you walk out with your BATNA.

6. How To Communicate During A Tough Conversation?

While there are different ways we can approach a conflict, I have learned from my experiences a few things we MUST NOT DO when conflicts happen. However, these are the very things we end up doing when we are not prepared or aware of how to respond to a particular conflict.

  1. Jump Right In and React
  2. Deny or Avoid the conflict
  3. Surrender or Give Up
  4. Dominate a Conflict
  5. Ignore the Relationships and People Involved

Even with all this preparation, it is easy to get sucked into our emotions and give into reacting impulsively. Below you will find some practical tips I find really helpful to navigate a conflict resolution conversation efficiently.

I have gathered and collected these tips from various books I have read and trainings I have undertaken, apart from my own mistakes and learnings in the past.

  1. Speak in a Non-Attacking Manner – Use “I” language rather than “You” language. For example – Say “I felt angry when you said that.” rather than “You made me angry by saying that.” Take responsibility for your own emotions, and remember the aim is to work together.
  2. Listen and Understand. Summarise and paraphrase what the other person says to make sure you understand his/her concerns and they know it is very important for you to do so.
  3. Walk the Talk – If you feel angry or frustrated by hearing certain words or voice tone, make sure to not use the same words and tone to the other person. I have often seen that observing my own thoughts and emotions helps me to understand others better.
  4. Separate the Facts from the Opinions –  Work together to challenge each other’s assumptions, and distinguish opinions backed by emotions from opinions backed by facts and data.
  5. Stay Silent – Use the power of silence to give the other person and yourself space to process what is being said in the conversation. It creates positive energy instead of building tension and enables us to handle tough situations in a more mature way.
  6. Speak Up Only If It Makes Things Better – Speak Up only when what you have to say will help the conversation in one way or the other. If what you have to say will not make the situation any better, don’t say it. In other words, do not vent or speak only because you had a thought in mind. Speak only when it helps you move towards the desired result.
  7. Give Time for Emotional Release – If someone is venting out, don’t interrupt. If it gets too heated, take a break. Wait for the (emotional) storm to pass before making repairs. Jumping in too early to fix things might backfire and cause more damage despite your good intentions.
  8. Don’t Push –  When you push people, they will push back. Present your thoughts without trying to push them through, and be open and flexible to listen to others’ concerns and thoughts. Give people a choice to accept or reject your ideas, as you cannot force them to your point of view anyway. Work together, not against each other.

7. What If You Can’t Find A Solution?

If you have done your preparation well, you already know how to escalate the stalemate to your superiors in the organization so that they can help. If you have not decided on any escalation rules earlier, now is not a bad time to do it either.

The only thing we must keep in mind with deciding escalation rules or escalating an issue itself is to not do it unilaterally. It is always beneficial to work with the other party to decide whatever escalation rules you can come up with, and then if the situation demands, to escalate the issue together. Escalating an issue alone without first communicating with the other party hurts the trust and the relationship which might make it even more difficult to resolve the conflict in the future.

Take A Break, And Try Again

If you have reached a stalemate, one common option is to take a break and reconvene later. Taking a pause at this time gives both sides space to reflect on the discussions so far and evaluate options. You might decide to harden or soften your position during this time and get a different perspective of the big picture.

When you meet again after a break, it is important to redefine the common purpose which both parties are seeking. Then you can work together to understand each other’s points of view and negotiate again.

Walk Away With Your BATNA

If the disagreement has reached a point where you can’t reach a solution acceptable to both parties, it might be prudent for both parties to walk away with their respective BATNAs (Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement). Not reaching a consensus in a conflict is not a bad outcome. Sometimes the best outcome is to not agree with the other party while still respecting them and keeping the relationship healthy.

Seek Mediation By A Third Party

Another step forward (if both parties agree to it) could be to seek mediation from a third party. This is different from escalation as escalation means involving your managers or seniors in the conversation. The rules of mediation seek the involvement of an independent third party.
And of course, the rules of mediation should be decided by both parties together.

Were You Promoted To Management Because You Did Well At Your Previous Role?
Make Conflicts A Source of Strength, Not A Weakness

In the end, we must ask ourselves this question – Do we want to be right, or effective?

And this is the question that can be answered by seeing things from another’s point of view.

Do we want to be right and prove others wrong and secure a personal victory?

Or is it more important to be effective in dealing with the topic at hand, even with the different points of view we might have?

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

― Abraham Lincoln

Once we learn to choose the latter, we can take meaningful steps towards reaching solutions and agreements that are more positive and inclusive than any individual point of view. Developing the ability to empathize and to approach life from this perspective will result in consistently better results for not only you but for everyone around you.

Conflicts can lead to misunderstanding and destroyed relationships, or it can be an opportunity to collaborate constructively and strengthen relationships. In the high-pressure business environment we all live in today, if we can develop this ability to resolve conflicts amicably, it can become a competitive advantage for us and the companies we work in.