“Conflict”: What’s in a name?


How do you know when you are in conflict? What is it about that situation, dynamic or conversation that makes it feel like you’re suddenly in a difficult conversation?

Is it your heart racing, blood pumping, colour rising to your cheeks and a general sense of unease? For many of us, conflict can be a stressful, threatening experience.

But we may be ‘in conflict’ more than we think.

Conflicting ideas = exchanging ideas

A conflict is actually any time in a conversation with someone when there is a difference of views, opinions, perspective. When we are expressing differing views, opinions or perspectives, we share a something that conflicts with those of the other person. Our ideas conflict with each other. Our views are in conflict. Our perspectives conflict.

This can be a good thing, because that exchange of view, opinions, perspective makes conversation and life interesting. Contrasting ideas can spark creativity. We only have to consider the alternative to see that contrasting ideas are a positive. What would the alternative be? Stagnation. Or not speaking up. That doesn’t sound great.

Positive conflict

So, if many conversations involve an element of difference, why don’t we see that as positive conflict? Sometimes we can be keen to emphasise the absence of ‘conflict’ because that word has a negative association. Paradoxically, acknowledging that there are different ideas being shared can make it easier to open up a conversation about those.

Engaging constructively

So, what can we do when we notice that we’re in a disagreement with someone we are speaking to? It’s noticing that opportunity to embrace the differences and engage in a constructive conversation where ideas are shared.

Here are some tips for that moment when we notice:

  1. Stay calm: remember this is a chance to exchange ideas.
  2. Don’t get personal: using language that attacks the other person themselves is more likely to close down the space for a discussion; instead focus on the views, opinions and perspectives.
  3. Acknowledge the difference: ‘How interesting – it sounds like we’re seeing this differently.’
  4. Explore to understand: ‘I’m curious. Could you tell me a bit more about what’s led you to that perspective?’
  5. Share our voice: ‘Shall I say something about why I see this differently?’

You can connect with Pip here for a conversation about conflict.

Conflict: What I wish I’d learnt at school


An opportunity to work with a group of 15-year olds this month exploring different aspects of conflict got me thinking.  Alongside other life skills such as managing money and nurturing mental health, what are some of the things about conflict that I wish I’d learnt as a teenager?

It’s unavoidable – and may be useful

A good chunk of my training with adult learners deals with the common assumptions that conflict is a bad thing. Or it’s seen as something to be avoided. But it can serve a useful function.  The positives that conflict can offer include the opportunity to air issues that need to be resolved.  We have an opportunity to describe what we need and to make specific requests to meet those needs. It’s an opportunity to embrace diverse thinking and different perspectives. In the workplace, a team without conflict isn’t a dream team, it’s a stagnant team!

And we can’t avoid conflict entirely.  We can choose to disengage from a conflict situation, by choosing an avoidant approach. But we are still subject to that conflict, but now without the scope to work constructively. We;’re missing the opportunity to meet our needs and to understand better what the other person is seeking to achieve. Hint: there’s generally more to it than just because they want to be mean. This might have surprised my 15-year old self!

To understand what’s happening, I need to go beyond the right/wrong trap

Focusing on allocating blame is limiting.  It limits the scope to understand what is driving the other person’s actions and behaviour.  I can widen the scope for us to reach an agreement by making a different choice. I can do this by seeking to understand what’s going on under the surface. Why are they behaving as they are?  What are they trying to achieve?  What really are they trying to achieve? This is also reminds me of the Stephen Covey lesson to ‘seek first to understand’ before I make my own case.

I can choose how I engage with conflict and I can engage better

Our learned conflict style isn’t the only option available to us. Talking through concerns wasn’t the default option when I was growing up. Looking back, I suspect that many of the adults around me were conflict-avoiders. There are certainly times when avoiding a conflict may serve me well. But if that’s my only way of responding then there’s an opportunity to do better. And that could work out better for me too.

My conclusion – I have improved how I manage conflict situations and there’s scope to improve further

I have worked on my conflict skills for some years now. And I sometimes describe myself as a ‘recovering conflict avoider’ when I’m training. Using this is when we’re talking through the five Thomas-Kilman conflict styles (avoiding, competing, compromising, accommodating, collaborating).  

I know that there is always scope to improve. It’s easier to enagage constructively in conflict as a third party, or in a professional setting. And, for me, I find it hardest to respond well in situations of personal conflict with my family. But I appreciate the skills I’ve built so far and I want to go further.

When training and coaching, I always emphasise that conflict skills can be developed at any stage of life. It would be great to start to develop those early on. But even if we didn’t, we can still build a solid set of skills to engage with conflict at all levels of intensity more effectively.

You can connect with Pip here for a conversation about conflict.

Always and Never: the two words that get in the way of constructive discussions


Constructive disagreements are the mark of a strong, healthy team. Just ask Matthew Syed, whose ‘Rebel Ideas’ set out the risk of stagnation in teams that aren’t able to share differing perspectives and views in a constructive discussion.

But, for many of us, it can feel stressful and scary to find ourselves in a conflict with someone – even if that is in a discussion where our views are conflicting. There may be times when avoiding conflict is a smart move. But if it’s holding us back from contributing our experience and views to a team discussion, then it’s getting in the way of our own best interests. Click here for more on conflict styles and how expanding your range of go-to conflict responses can help you reduce your stress.

The good news is that disagreeing constructively is a learnt skill – which means we can get better at this.  In our previous post, we explored the advantages to building up our conflict competence.  This post will focus on two words that crop up a lot and rarely help progress a disagreement constructively: always and never.

Always and Never

What does this mean?

They each generalise behaviour:

‘he never listens’

‘she always undermines me’

‘they never ask me how I am’

Are those statements entirely true?  Is it always the case that these colleagues are showing the behaviours described?  Is it really something that happens unfailingly?  Or something that is unfailingly absent

The risk is that in using these words we gloss over nuances in the behaviour being described. They are, therefore, often inaccurate.

Why are these words problematic?

It’s distracting from the main message – the other party is likely to focus on the veracity of the statement.  When I receive this, my mind immediately goes to thinking about the occasions when it isn’t the case – and I lost the main message that the other person wants me to hear.

They exacerbate the disconnection and get in the way of connecting.  

What can we do to move into a more constructive discussion?

In her fantastic book and training, mediator Gerry O’Sullivan explains that these statements take an example of behaviour and apply that to all that person’s actions.  She encourages us to probe the statements to develop an understanding of when this is behaviour takes place and when it doesn’t:

“He never listens”

  • What experience have you had that leads you to say that?
  • Are there any examples where that wasn’t the case?
  • Is there ever a time when he does listen? 

Listening to people in mediations using ‘always’ and ‘never’ has made me much more aware of my own use of these words.  And I now use them much less often because they generally aren’t accurate.

Have you noticed how ‘always’ and ‘never’ affect the flow of discussion?

Pip would love to talk to you about any conflict issue that is getting in the way you achieving what you want to – click here to set up an exploratory 30 minute call.

8 Reasons to Develop Your Conflict Competence


Most of us do not enjoy conflict. The idea that we would spend time and money to focus on how we manage and engage with conflict might seem like unrealistic. It is hard to find time and resource for everything we want to do, much less talking about things we’d rather avoid.

Conflict can be scary

But you could be missing an opportunity to save time, money and stress. I believe that improving the way that we approach and engage in issues of conflict with our co-workers should be a key focus of your development in 2023. Here are 8 reasons why…

1. You’ll save stress

Conflict can be stressful, scary, daunting, overwhelming and miserable.  It doesn’t necessarily have to feel like that though.  It is possible to enhance or develop the skills to engage with conflict more constructively, with less stress as a result. 

2. You’ll get better results

Conflicts left to fester generally get harder to resolve.  People may feel hurt, angry and want to stick to their guns, and/or punish the other party.  If you can flush out the issues sooner, the more chance you have to find a resolution that works for all.

3. You’ll save time

The longer tensions are left unaddressed, the more damage they can do. This affects those in the conflict themselves. But the effects are also felt by those around them in the wider team – and the wider organisation.  

4. You won’t have to stay trapped in the past

People stuck in conflict can really struggle to draw a line under those past hurts.  Getting issues resolved means that the parties can focus on what’s going on now and where they want to get to in the future.  

5. You’ll have a degree of control over what happens regarding solutions

If we can get issues of tension resolved directly, it keeps us in control of what is going to happen next.  When we pass responsibility for resolving a situation to another person – manager or HR – we have sacrificed the control over how the issues are resolved.

6. You’ll have the opportunity to achieve a confidential resolution to the issue

Once an issue has been referred to others, it is no longer a private matter.  It can be embarrassing to explain the details to another person.  If we can resolve issues directly with the other person involved, we can keep it confidential.

7. You won’t be ‘judged’ by an external authority

Once a dispute has been referred to someone else for resolution, it’s almost inevitable that there will be a degree of judgement.  We can spare ourselves this by addressing the issues directly ourselves.

8. Your solutions are likely to last longer than those imposed on you

When we identify the issues that need to be addressed and generate our solutions, they tend prompt a much greater degree of ownership than those imposed on us by others. 

Talk to us about how you and your team can have constructive conversations and debate by building your conflict competence.