Approaching Difficult Conversations & Conflict

It’s never easy, but nonetheless, it’s an essential part of leadership.

The growth and health of a an organization or business is often dependent on the leadership’s ability to engage difficult conversations during times of tension or conflict. Avoiding or ignoring these opportunities (yes, opportunities) for maturity has led to the unnecessary demise of many endeavors. Here are some insights/lessons I’ve learned over the years in dealing with conflict that I hope you find helpful:

  • Meet in person.
    • Whenever possible, choose the more uncomfortable and inconvenient option of meeting in person. Other forms of communication like email, text messages, social media replies, and phone calls rarely produce good results. Also, meeting in person puts flesh to the conflict. In other words, we can’t hide behind technology and/or our insecurities when we’re face to face with another human being.
  • Listen well.
    • There’s a difference between listening well and just waiting so you can throw out your next argument. No matter how difficult it is in the heat of the moment, try to listen for what the person is really trying to say. Consider the underlying presuppositions and try to follow what led the person to think the way they currently do. Are they being reasonable? Could they actually be accurate in some of their views, especially given their scope of experience?
  • Be clear.
    • The goal of these kinds of engagements should not to be “right”. Rather, it should be the clarification of each person ended up with their conclusions. More often than not, it’s misunderstanding that fuels the tension. Ask questions that clarify the situation. If the goal isn’t to “win” the argument, approaching these moments take on a totally different posture.
  • Stay honest.
    • No one’s perfect. It is quite possible that each person involved in the conflict as a skewed perspective of the situation. Be upfront and publicly recognize that. Work towards the truth (if possible) and don’t hide behind egos and insecurities. The goal should be to learn and grow from the conflict in order to move forward in a healthy way as a company, organization, or individual.
  • Think action.
    • As you work through the conflict, take notes on what can be implemented into your personal life as well as the life of the organization that will curb future tension. Share some of these thoughts as you process. Taking the posture of a learner is healthy and will benefit many more people along the way.
  • Have a neutral party there.
    • In some situations, it might be wise to have a neutral party there to witness and even moderate the conversation. This person is not there to be a judge, but rather, a person who can work the conversation towards a solution.

Conflict can become a great catalyst for growth if we choose to approach it with humility and wisdom. What are some of the ways you have learned to approach difficult conversations and conflict?

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Charles Lee
Charles is the CEO & Chief Idea-Maker at Ideation, a brand innovation company that specializes in helping businesses & organizations build remarkable brands via innovative business design, organizational change architecture, brand integration, design, web, and marketing services. He is also the author of Good Idea. Now What?: How to Move Ideas to Execution, a practical book designed to help people move ideas to implementation. Charles is regularly invited to speak to leading companies and organizations on topics such as creativity, innovation, idea-making, and branding. Executive leaders from brands including Wells Fargo, Toyota, The White House, Catalyst, William Morris Endeavor, mun2, Council of Urban Professionals, Chick-fil-A, and many others have benefited from having Charles present at their key events.