“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.

Uncomfortable conversations: Love them or hate them?


Who relishes a conversation that feels uncomfortable?  Alesha Dixon commented in an interview earlier this year – “I love an uncomfortable conversation. I really do. Because I’m not afraid to learn and to be wrong.”  Her comment has really stayed with me. It’s unusual to hear someone talking about difficult discussions in such a positive way.

How do you feel when you’re out of your comfort zone?

It’s not uncommon to feel threatened – as though you’re under attack. If you feel yourself going into flight-fight mode, you wouldn’t be alone. Dan Goleman referred to the “amygdala hijack” in Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter More than IQ. That hijack often doesn’t bring out the best in anyone. Steve Peters has described the brain’s reaction to the hijack as a chimp.

Feeling threatened?

It’s a threat

When we perceive specific threats in a social situation, it affects our ability to interact productively. Commonly these are threats to our social standing: having our competence undermined, feeling as though we’re being micro-managed; believing a situation to be unfair. Acknowledging the stressors that trigger our threat responses is a good way to ensure that the confrontation doesn’t get the better of you.

You’re wrong!”

‘Being wrong’ is a very emotionally loaded phrase.  It can get in the way of listening to other perspectives because it’s a rare person who is able to keep practising active listening, when they feel like they are under attack.

It can be scary to admit that you might be getting something wrong – or that you just don’t know about something.  If you’re trying to do that in the middle of a conflict, then that’s really tricky.

But it’s important. You may be missing out on an opportunity. Those emotions may get in the way of hearing a different perspective – really hearing it, without that sense of threat.

Managing your emotions

Thankfully there’s a lot of advice around about managing that emotional response during difficult conversations.  Much focuses on getting your breathing under control – whether as part of mediation, or just taking some deep breaths.

“Why is Marcus so concerned about this issue?”

There’s also a classic technique of ‘distanced self-talk’ – as demonstrated by Marcus Aurelius.  There’s a shift from thinking ”why am I feeling so upset?”, which is considered immersed self-talk, to a distanced self-talk question, eg “why is Joe feeling so upset?” (if your name is Joe). 

Sometimes, getting some support from someone outside the situation can make a difference to how those discussions go. If you’d like some support to manage difficult conversations, get in touch and I might be able to help.