5 Ways to Humanize Conflict

You don’t agree with the trajectory of a project at work so you make up excuses to miss the meetings. You don’t want to openly disagree. You don’t want to upset the apple cart. You start talking behind the project leader’s back. You keep quiet at the meetings you do attend. You become passive aggressive. Sandbag as much as you can on your end. This ensures the project doesn’t succeed so that you can be smug when it fails.

This is all created by your conflict avoidance. Let’s be realistic. Most of us are conflict averse. We don’t want to hurt our boss’ feelings. We don’t want to make someone angry. We don’t want to make our coworker feel bad. And we don’t want to be part of a losing project. But there is a way to humanize conflict and have it be a win-win situation.


Here are the ways.

1. Seek first to understand. Habit 5 of Steven R. Covey’s, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” Most of us approach conflict to try and make our case. We want to be understood first. When we change that up and attempt to understand first, it has an enormous impact and builds trust.

Ask open ended questions and respond with a summary of what you heard. “Can you tell me about this project from the beginning?” “How do you feel about the data?” “Are there any other resources available?” These questions aren’t accusatory or judgmental. They are just about gathering information and understanding.

2. Humanize your opponent. In The Great Courses’ Your Best Brain, Dr. John Medina brought up a study done by two groups of business school students from competing universities. Group A was given a fictitious issue to negotiate via email with no other information. Group A was negotiating with someone who was essentially anonymous to them. Group B was told to exchange pictures and to reveal something about themselves before moving forward with the negotiation. Group B was humanizing their counterpart in the negotiation. The result? Group A had an impasse rate of 29% and Group B had an impasse rate of 6%. Remarkable! So if you are trying to resolve an issue with someone who is not in the office, or a customer via email; try and use their correct name (no one likes their name misspelled). Include your photo in your signature line. Be human.

3. Everyone is right…partially. This is a tenant of CRR Global. Everyone wants to be right. Like all the time. No one wants to go around being wrong. It’s human nature. So think about it. Is this really just you trying to be “right” versus what is best for the company? Can you admit that you might be 1% wrong and let it go? Sometimes we find conflict when there doesn’t need to be. We don’t need to crucify someone for misfiling the file; or changing the venue for the presentation because it wasn’t the one we picked.

4. Conflict norms. Patrick Lencioni espouses using conflict norms for a leader with his team. As he states, “To effectively make conflict a core part of a team’s culture, we suggest establishing ’conflict norms.’ Conflict norms are a handful of expectations the team establishes and commits to in order to engage in healthy conflict during team discussions.” Lencioni’s suggestions that the leader end the debate or discussion with the phrase, “Do You Support the Direction?” and make sure everyone responds. Another is for silence to imply you agree and making sure there are no offline discussions. You know – the meeting after the meeting. Make sure you have conflict norms for your team.

5. Positivity is infectious. Try and harvest what is good. What’s going well. Positivity builds rapport amongst the team. Think about people at work that you get along with. People you would go to the mat for. Odds are you have a good rapport with them and you have a positive relationship. They aren’t busy throwing other people under the bus or blaming everyone else for everything They are acknowledging what is going right. This builds rapport for when you need to step into conflict.

I have to say that our cable was out the other day and the customer service rep said to me “Catharine (see #2), please tell me about the issue (see #1).” After I explained the issue she said “Catharine, I am sure this is frustrating for you (see #3).” I felt heard, empathized with and humanized. I didn’t get angry. Amazing what word choice can do for a conflict.

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