6 Do’s and Don’ts for Handling Conflict

UPDATED: December 4, 2017
PUBLISHED: December 4, 2017

How conflict is handled can quickly separate great leaders from leadership liabilities. Poor leaders mishandle conflict in three predictable ways:

1. They give in.

Conflict is difficult and often scary. It challenges our sense of self, our confidence and our security in relationships. Leaders who give in during conflict let it paralyze them. They play it safe to keep the peace, compromise to avoid discomfort and avoid direct conversations for fear of rejection. These leaders send the message that conflict is bad for relationships and should be avoided.

2. They give unsolicited advice.

Conflict introduces a different kind of energy and can disrupt progress. It’s natural to see it as a nuisance that just needs to be figured out. Some leaders lose perspective during conflict, thinking it’s their job to be the hero and save the day by telling everyone else what to do. They offer advice and solutions without being invited, reinforcing boundary problems and dependence. They send the message that conflict is just a problem to be solved, and they think they have the answer.

3. They give ultimatums.

Conflict results from a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing. It’s tempting to believe the myth that others are responsible for the conflict, therefore they are the ones who need to change. Leaders who buy into this myth have no problem giving ultimatums. They believe it’s OK to threaten people as a way to close the gap. They send the message that fear, intimidation and manipulation are acceptable ways to get others to shape up.

Great leaders don’t see conflict as a threat or a problem. Great leaders see conflict as a source of energy and a powerful opportunity to be leveraged.

Related: 5 Strategies for Overcoming Conflict

Here are three secrets for what great leaders do when conflict comes knocking:

1. They open up.

Great leaders aren’t afraid to share their experience of conflict. They open up to themselves and others by acknowledging the discomfort of conflict. They are willing to name their emotions and experiences and give others permission to do the same. By doing this, they send the message that conflict is difficult and it’s OK. Opening up has the added benefit of often revealing deeper desires and wants, which makes it much easier to address root causes. It may sound like this:

  • “I care deeply about this relationship and am worried where things are going.”
  • “I am anxious, too. Mergers have so many unknowns.”
  • “It’s OK to be angry.”

2. They get curious.

Most people adopt a position during conflict, which leads to polarization. Great leaders do just the opposite. They get curious and show a nonjudgmental interest in their own perspective and the perspectives of others. They don’t worry about who’s right or wrong, instead focusing on understanding and learning. They seek first to understand, not to be understood. They ask open-ended questions, instead of looking for exceptions or reiterating their own point of view. Here are some examples:

  • “What information would be most helpful for you?”
  • “I would like to check some assumptions. May I share them with you and get your perspective?”
  • “I’m really curious about your perspective. Will you share more?”

3. They focus on what matters.

Many people in conflict get distracted from the real issues, seeking instead to feel justified by falling into one of the traps described above. They focus so much on content that they lose sight of what really matters. Or, they decide that everything matters, which creates an impossible dilemma for everyone.

Great leaders are able to step back, take perspective and get crystal clear on what really matters. They can separate the “what” from the “why.” They know that behind most negative behavior is a positive, unmet need. Meeting that need and addressing bigger issues of respect, dignity and emotional safety are keys to lasting solutions. When principles, boundaries and values are at stake, they are able to focus on one or two that are most relevant. Several examples could include:

  • “Ultimately, I want to protect the trust of our stakeholders. I’ll support whatever we can do to achieve that.”
  • “I can tell how important decision-making autonomy is for you. I want to balance that with consistency in results and I am in 100 percent.”
  • “For me, it boils down to transparency. I don’t want to do anything that undermines my credibility with the board of directors.”

Conflict is a great source of energy for leaders who know how to use it. By learning to open up, get curious and focus on what matters, leaders can avoid the casualties of conflict and leverage it for positive results.

Related: Why Good Leaders Love Office Conflict​

Nate Regier

Dr. Nate Regier is the co-founder, owner and chief executive of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in leadership communication. A former practicing psychologist, Dr. Nate Regier has a doctorate in clinical psychology. He is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, team building, and change management. An international advisor, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer, Process Communication Model® certifying master trainer and co-developer of Next Element’s Leading Out of Drama® training and coaching.