By nature, I’d prefer to completely avoid conflict. To me it feels like walking with other people through a minefield, either by force or by choice. In some ways, it is. Navigating conflict requires courage and is profoundly vulnerable.
We know that avoiding conflict at work makes us sick, damages creativity and diminishes productivity and morale. One study by CPP, Inc. found that 1 in 4 employees reported illness or taking sick days due to workplace conflict. More than one-third said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting. The losses and costs add up quickly. Replacing an employee carries some not-so-obvious costs, such as the hard dollar costs of severance, recruiting, and training, and the opportunity cost of lost knowledge and skill.
What if there was a way to navigate conflict with courage and generosity? What if navigating conflict could build trust and relational health rather than demolishing it?
I’m convinced that the world needs our best people doing their finest work. This only happens when we move through conflict toward relational health. No way around it. Conflict avoidance is an absolute waste of opportunities and of our energy.
We all can develop the maturity to navigate and resolve complex issues and relational damage. Or we can systematically avoid those issues, allowing them to fester into toxic, energy-draining tumors that eventually demand our time, energy, and attention— at the expense of other important work.
But even when we’re willing to endure discomfort, it doesn’t mean we know how to navigate the path through the minefield.
Here’s a roadmap we’ve been using:
Articulate in just a few words exactly what you want to discuss. Can you describe what outcome you hope to achieve? Giving the other person a heads-up reduces confusion and gives the other person the courtesy of time to prepare mentally and emotionally for the conversation.
For example, “I want to talk about a pattern of poor collaboration on the X Project. My goal is a shared understanding of what we can expect of each other so we can collaborate more effectively.” Or “I want to talk about how you blow up every time I have to tell you bad news. I want to be able to work through to solutions with less drama and yelling.”
2. Reality, Perception, Intention*
These three elements are easily jumbled in a conversation. Draw a table with 4 columns on paper or a whiteboard. Label the first column Reality. Both of you list the facts of the situation. Think about what a video camera would play back. No assigning intentions yet. Just relevant data points.
In the second column, labeled Perception, list the impact to each person. “C felt like her feedback didn’t matter to the project team. B felt she couldn’t let the project timeline be slowed down by C’s lack of schedule availability.”
The third column (Intention) is where we clarify each person’s motivations. Why did C do what she did? Why did B do what she did? What was C intending to accomplish? Often ah-ha moments happen here. This is a chance to let go of inaccurate assumptions and see the situation with new eyes.
*hat tip to Ken Martlage and his Mischief Model, which drives our thinking and approach here.
This is an important step. Even if you did not intend for the other person to get hurt in some way, damage was done. Take ownership of the impact of the action and apologize for the way it made the other person feel. Be sincere, truthful and as specific as possible. “C, I’m sorry for making you feel devalued and that your contributions didn’t matter by leaving you off the meeting invitations. I was valuing efficiency over relationships and I see how that hurt you and the project. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
4. Offers and Requests
Each person proposes offers and requests to the other. Document these in the fourth column on your table. “I will talk with you face-to-face before leaving you off of project meeting invitations to be sure you’re okay missing those meetings.” “Can you flag those meeting invitations so they don’t get buried in my email? I will answer flagged invitations within 12 hours.”
5. Follow Up
One final task: Schedule 2-3 check-in meetings with your counterpart before you wrap up. This provides opportunities to see if both of you are fulfilling your offers and requests consistently. Sometimes the offers and requests change as clarity on the root cause of a conflict emerges.
This roadmap is simple but these conversations are not easy. You’re invested. You care. You may have been hurt or you may come to realize you hurt someone else. We’ve found structured tools (such as our M3 Template) can make these discussions less painful and more productive.
Let me lend you some of my courage. If I can do this, so can you. We’re here for you if you need us and we’re cheering you on.