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Leveraging 4 dimensions of better conflict conversations

Avoid conflict with your colleagues by being clear about goals and commitments, while fostering connection and curiosity, write Karin Hurt and David Dye.

7 min read



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No matter what conflict you face, there will always be four dimensions that will make it productive. Today, we share these four dimensions and a few of our G.O.A.T. Powerful Phrases from our new book, Powerful Phrases for Dealing With Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to De-Stress the Workday, Build Collaboration, and Calm Difficult Customers (Harper Collins). 

4 dimensions of constructive conflict 

  1. Connection — Do we know one another as human beings? 
  2. Clarity — Do we have a shared understanding of success? 
  3. Curiosity — Are we genuinely interested in other perspectives and what’s possible?
  4. Commitment — Do we have a clear agreement?

1. Connection: Do we know one another as human beings? 

connectionWorkplace conflict always involves people — and every conflict gets easier the more you know one another, understand one another’s perspectives and see one another as human beings. 

Imagine that you’re in a clash with a coworker named Joe. You’ve come together to talk about it. Joe opens the conversation with a Powerful Phrase: “I really care about you and this project, and I’m confident we can find a solution we can all work with.” 

Well, if Joe’s basically a good guy, who got you out of a bind last year when your little boy was sick . . . and, oh yeah, just last week he told your boss you’re a rock star at pivot tables (that sure was nice of him), that’s a solid way for Joe to start the conversation. 

You might think, “Well, I’m frustrated but come to think of it, Joe always seems fair. Let me listen to what he has to say. He’s right. I bet we can work this out.” 

Now imagine the same conflict different Joe.

This Joe recently threw you under the bus and took credit for your work. Oh yeah, and last week, he laughed at your idea during the staff meeting in front of your boss and all the people. 

Now, if Joe starts the conversation the same way, by saying, “I really care about you and this project . . .” you might think, “Nice try, Joe, but that’s a hard stop. I don’t trust you.” 

That’s the power of connection. The more connection you can build before you need it, the easier conflict becomes. And yeah, for many people, connection feels challenging right now because of lingering pandemic hangover, hybrid or remote work and cross–time zone teams. 

As you seed the ground for easier collaboration, influence and trust, one of the best things you can do is get to know the people you work with as people, not just their function. Treat them with dignity and be trustworthy. It takes extra time, but you’ll earn it back many times over when you work through conflict. If you’ve not invested in the relationship, or the other person doesn’t trust your intentions, even the most carefully chosen words will fall flat. 

And speaking of connection — there’s one more person to connect with: you. Constructive conflict requires you to know your values, your goals, what you need and what you want. 

2. Clarity: Do we have a shared understanding of success? 

Think about any significant conflict you have now or had in the past. We’re willing to bet that the source of that conflict includes an expectation violation. You thought they’d clean up their coffee mugs after the meeting. They thought the magic coffee mug fairy would take care of it. Everyone carries around expectations of one another. And sometimes, you don’t even know you have an expectation until someone doesn’t live up to it. So, the second dimension of constructive conflict is to get on the same page: create clarity about outcomes and expectations. 

One of the common mistakes we see people make in workplace conflict is that they don’t clearly understand what success looks like. So, you get conversations like this: 

Jack: “I don’t like this.”
Jill: “Okay, what would you like to see happen?”
Jack: “I don’t know. I’m not sure what I want.” 

Can you feel the frustration? That’s a conversation that can’t go anywhere. (And before you feel bad when you show up like Jack . . . listen, we do it too.) 

When you get clear for yourself and help other people find their clarity, now you can have a more productive conflict conversation. 

3. Curiosity: Are we genuinely interested in other perspectives and what’s possible? 

One of the fastest ways to get to the root cause of a workplace conflict is to show up genuinely curious about the other person’s perspective. Your sincere curiosity helps people feel seen and gives you a better understanding of what it will take to solve a problem. 

This is often the hardest part of constructive conflict because you have your point of view for a reason. It’s hard to be curious when you’re furious. And yet . . . the cool thing about curiosity is that when you ask a good question, it automatically helps pull you out of that reactivity. It’s hard to be angry and genuinely curious at the same time. 

Now you might think, “Oh, I’m curious, all right. I want to know, ‘What’s wrong with them? How can they be so freakin’ stupid?’” 

Those are questions, of course, but they are extensions of your frustration and won’t help you understand the other person’s point of view. 

And that’s why we specify good questions. Questions that increase understanding. That helps you build on another’s ideas. Questions with answers that make you say, “Huh, you know, I never thought of it that way.” And we’ll give you plenty of these effective curiosity questions throughout the book. 

4. Commitment: Do we have a clear agreement? 

One of the most frustrating aspects of workplace conflict conversations is that it seems like they’ll never end. As you connect, get curious, and build on one another’s suggestions, your conversation needs to produce action, or nothing changes. And if nothing changes, it’s worse than if you never had a conversation. Now you’ve wasted time, trust drips away, and people lose hope. Commitment is the answer and the key to moving you from words to action. 

There are two keys to a useful commitment. The first is to get specific. You want specific actions with specific owners who have specific finish lines. The second key to an effective commitment is to schedule a time to review your agreement. 

Let’s look at an example. 

Say you have a peer you rely on for data. Let’s call him Don. And the two of you are in conflict because Don’s not giving you the reports you need for your team members to do their jobs. You have a friendly conversation, and because Don’s team is drowning in work, you agree your team will request the data only once a week. 

That’s good so far, but that’s not a commitment. You still need specific actions, specific owners and specific finish lines, with a specific time to review your commitment. So, you build the following agreement: This Friday, you will explain the new process to your team. Your team members will get data requests to Don’s team by 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Don will explain the new process to his team at their meeting tomorrow morning. Don’s team will supply the requested data on Wednesdays by noon. You and Don will meet in two weeks on Monday at 4:30 p.m. to see how it’s going. 

The specificity makes it clear what everyone will do. You don’t leave it up to good intentions. The follow-up meeting makes it more likely that you will both keep your commitments, and it creates time to deal with the inevitable challenges that will disrupt your new plan. 

By fostering genuine connections, ensuring clarity of goals, maintaining an open curiosity about different viewpoints and securing clear commitments, you can transform potential conflicts into opportunities for growth and collaboration.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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