Productive Conflict Is Not An Oxymoron

Adapted from an article from published September 23, 2017

Question: 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?

Answer: Problem solving takes time and effort but in today’s work environment, time can be a precious commodity. Therefore, people 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. 

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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: 

  • Can you describe the situation and give me a specific example of what happened?
  • Can you explain the issue to me as you see it?
  • I feel as if I’m coming into this situation in the middle. Can we start at the beginning?

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

Answer: Active listening is the most powerful way to capture the entire message a speaker is attempting to convey. It takes some work and practice, but it’s worth the effort. 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. An active listener has to sincerely want to hear what is being said.  Here are some phrases an active listen can use to show the speaker that she’s engaged:

  • This is what I heard you say. Is that correct?
  • 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.

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

Answer: At the core of many workplace conflicts is the lack of expectations. There is a golden opportunity to set the tone early, beginning with the interview and again at the start of the working relationship – the position, the job duties and what success in the position looks like. Let employees know, “These are our values, these are the behaviors that reflect our values, and we have zero tolerance for behavior that is contrary to our values.” The following are some phrases that can help set and clarify expectations:

  • This is how your job fits into the role of the department and the mission of the organization.
  • Let’s review some tasks that are part of your job.
  • If you don’t understand why I’m asking for something, please speak up and ask me.

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