Productive Conflict is not an Oxymoron

Based on an interview with Rodger Dean Duncan, originally posted on on September 23, 2017

Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional. Conflict—when it’s handled appropriately—can lead to breakthrough solutions. It all requires honest dialogue. Fortunately, it’s a learnable skill.

A helpful tool is a new book by Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell. It’s called The Conflict Resolution Phrase Book. If you find yourself fumbling for words, this book can help you navigate through even the most challenging conversations.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Honest, straightforward dialogue seems to be the key to most problems in the workplace (and elsewhere). Why are so many people so bad at it?

Cornelia Gamlem: Problem-solving takes time and effort. But in today’s work environment, time can be a precious commodity. Therefore, people often don’t get to the root of the problem or even try to understand what the problem is. They react and hope to move on. It’s easier and quicker to offer an explanation, excuse or apology without taking the time to listen or read (if the issue is presented in writing) and understand. They pick up on sound bites or scan a page, formulate a quick response and then start talking or writing.

Duncan: What’s the first thing that should be said in a risky conversation? Why?

Barbara Mitchell: In any tense conversation, admit that a problem exists and needs to be solved. Then commit to identifying and solving it. This is important because if issues are not identified and resolved, they don’t go away. They fester and grow into bigger problems and conflicts. Also, don’t be afraid to admit that emotions are present. Emotions are normal and natural. Acknowledging them makes it easier to manage them and the conversation.

Duncan: What are some good questions to ask in helping the other person put the real issue(s) on the table for discussion?

Gamlem: When trying to get to the root of an issue, it’s important to exchange information and points of view. The following questions can help you do that.

  • Something’s been brought to my attention. Can we talk about this issue now, or would a time later today be better?
  • You’re talking in sound bites. What are the facts behind them, please?
  • What do we not know and what do we need to know? How can we get that information?

Duncan: For some people, “listening” means just waiting for their turn to rebut. How can they replace that destructive habit with genuine listening to understand?

Mitchell: Active listening is the most powerful way to capture the entire message a speaker is attempting to convey. It encourages the other person to talk. It takes work and practice, but it’s worth the effort. Here’s how it works. While the speaker is talking, the active listener sends messages to encourage the speaker to provide more information or to show more emotion—a smile, a nod, a raised eyebrow. Here are some phrases an active listener can use to show the speaker that she’s engaged:

  • I’m puzzled. Would you mind repeating that?
  • I can tell by your tone of voice that you’re excited about this.
  • If that happened to me, I’d have the same reaction.

Duncan: It’s been said that ambiguity is the enemy of accountability. What are some good ways to clarify expectations up front?

Gamlem: If people don’t understand what’s expected of them, the result can be confusion and conflict. There is a golden opportunity to expectations early, beginning with the interview and again at the start of the working relationship. The following are some phrases that can help set and clarify expectations:

  • Let’s review some tasks that are part of your job.
  • If there is something you don’t understand, let me know as soon as possible so I can explain it.
  • It’s okay to admit what you don’t know.

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