Interpersonal conflict is unavoidable, but the good news is there are many strategies you can develop to help strengthen your conflict resilience to make your life easier. The realities of the last few years have led to important conversations about mental health and wellness; increased stress levels have been felt far and wide and have spilled into all areas of life. Learning how to advocate for yourself, navigate challenging conversations, and effectively communicate when situations become difficult will have a direct impact on your overall sense of wellbeing. The truth is most of us have never learned the skills to manage conflict which means we need to prioritize this work for ourselves. And as Vital Smarts (the Crucial Conversations gurus) point out, we often act our worst when it matters the most.
I remember years ago, I had a colleague who had a totally different working style from mine. We were co-facilitators and together, responsible for program design. She was someone who thrived last minute; this meant she would send her materials in the night before we were set to teach, and the morning of class she would fly in at the eleventh hour, after I had been there in time to do sound checks, test computers, presentation decks, and greet participants. I was endlessly frustrated because I felt like she wasn’t detailed enough, but more than that, I didn’t feel like she was a team player or setting me up for success. I decided that she was selfish, disorganized, and unprofessional. She thought I was uptight, perfectionist, and lacked flexibility – a real recipe for success.
It got to the point where every time I interacted with this colleague I would seethe; I could feel the heat of my disrespect rising and I would do what I could to avoid her. It was around this time I was also being trained as a facilitator in the Vital Smarts Crucial Conversations program (the irony!). Through my facilitator training I was learning about my conflict style. Vital Smarts talks about the spectrum of communication as silence on one end and violence/aggression on the other. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you are prone to, either approach is an indicator that safety has been compromised. This was my AHA moment: I was on the silence end and she was on the violence end – I would shut down when things got tense and she would become more assertive. After much brooding I decided to set up a meeting with her to talk about our working styles and to explain the “why” behind how I work. She shared the same, and with that we came up with a few ground rules. We were never close colleagues, but we did learn how to work together and sometimes that is the best you can do.
There are no hard and fast rules about how to best navigate conflict, but there are several approaches that can certainly help. These are a handful of strategies to support skill-building and confidence when confronted with challenging interactions.
1. Understand Your ‘What’ and Your ‘Why’
A helpful starting point is to reflect on what it is about the interaction that most frustrates you to get beyond the immediate reactivity of the situation. This could be the irritation that surfaces in response to what feels like a short or snippy email, or the frustration that bubbles up when we feel like someone constantly shuts down ideas, or the annoyance felt when someone is perpetually late with their deliverables. Acknowledging the frustration is the first step, and the next is to shift focus from retaliation to getting to your root cause. The ‘what’ in this example could be that you value collaboration and teamwork and you feel that is not being respected. The ‘why’ is connected to your personal values and if someone is behaving in ways that contradict those, it is going to trigger a strong response. What is important to remember is that they likely have a different set of core values; perhaps flexibility and creativity are important to them, and they may be less deadline driven. The point is, it’s not personal, it’s about preference, and understanding the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ for all parties involved is key to managing conflict and improving interpersonal relationships.
2. Practice Active Listening
There is not enough to be said about developing and refining your active listening skills. This is arguably one of the most under-developed leadership skills, and without listening effectively, you can never truly understand someone’s position – or their what and why. In a study by Zenger and Folkman people perceive the best listeners to be those who ask questions that promote discovery and insight. They also found that good listening was “characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly” Inviting in difference as an opportunity to collaborate and ideate can be the difference between delivering mediocre results vs. knocking a project out of the park.
There are a few more tactical strategies you can employ when practicing active listening. Developing the skill of paraphrasing is a great way to demonstrate you are listening, and it will also test your understanding of what is being communicated. Non-verbal cues can also provide a lot of insight into emotion; pay attention to tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions which can be very revealing. You can mirror back emotion by saying something like ‘I hear how passionate you are about the outcome here’, which is a powerful way of acknowledging the other person’s feelings and perspective. One final thought is to notice your instinct to interrupt, talk over, finish someone’s sentence; or the familiar habit of focusing on your response as opposed to a powerful/insightful question.
3. Expand Your Perspective
When we get fixated on a specific outcome, or when our focus is on trying to control someone else’s behaviour, it causes immense suffering, stress, and anxiety. Expanding your perspective by challenging your position is a strategy to alleviate your own stress and open up to different possibilities. Amy Gallo suggests that we challenge our own perspective by reflecting on these questions:
- How do I know that what I believe is true?
- What if I’m wrong?
- How would I change my behavior?
- What assumptions have I made?
- How would someone with different values and experiences see things?
Reflecting on any flaws in your perspective will create the space to improve outcomes for you and your colleagues. By asking these questions, you may also gain clarity about your your what and why, which can free you from your own limitations.
Another suggestion that is critical in expanding your awareness is to understand how your unconscious bias could be influencing – and narrowing – your perspective. One of the best tools available is the Harvard Implicit bias test which is a free test that assesses attitudes or stereotypes that influence perception and behaviour. The reality is we all have biases, and being aware of, and questioning these, can make you a more effective, objective, and self-aware leader.
4. Get Curious
When we get locked into a challenging dynamic with someone at work, we often get entrenched in negative thought patterns or a set of assumptions; suddenly everything they do becomes problematic or suspect! The reality is the magnitude of our negative judgements/assumptions are far greater than the truth of the situation. Getting curious about how your thought patterns are negatively influencing your own behaviour, and potentially feeding negative assumptions about you, can snap you out of unproductive and reactive ways of being.
5. Have a Clear Outcome
In order to establish next steps and to find resolution, you need to understand what it is that you want. That can often be masked by the immediacy of our emotions when things are stirred up; I want this person to stop being so unreliable, I want this person to stick to the plan, to be on time… The key here is to get underneath that. Is it that you want to get the project past the finish line or is it that you want to strengthen the relationship? It could also be a longer-term goal, perhaps the outcome of this project could set you up for a promotion. You need to understand your goal post and stay focused on that and be prepared to ask for what you want, and also be prepared to compromise. Identifying and communicating a desired outcome brings clarity to the situation and can help defuse heated dynamics.
There is no perfect recipe to navigating the complexity of human relationships, especially in times of stress. What you want to do is to focus on building interpersonal resilience so that you feel less stressed when you’re engaged in a conflict. Practice with some of these strategies, start with a strategy that feels most comfortable, and remember to go easy on yourself. You aren’t aiming for perfection; you are aiming to build your conflict competency one strategy at a time!
About the Author
Wylie Burke is an innovation consultant, facilitator, and leadership coach. She has over 15 years of experience in business administration, human resources, strategic and operational planning, and leading high performing teams. She brings a unique perspective to her work, having had the pleasure of working for a diverse range of organizations including United Way Toronto, CIBC, SickKids, WSIB, and Toronto Metropolitan University. Wylie is recognized for creating inclusive environments that inspire insights, connection, fun, and shared learning, that result in personal and organizational integration. She thinks of her work as community building and recognizes that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about learning and applying concepts in an adaptive way that brings about sustainable change, taking into account the dynamic, unique, and varied needs of individuals and organizations while also nurturing a shared understanding and appreciation of differences. Wylie holds an MBA from Queen’s University, an Honours Degree in Sociology from York University, and she is an Adler Trained Coach.
Gallo, A. (2022). How to navigate conflict with a coworker. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2022/09/how-to-navigate-conflict-with-a-coworker.
Grenny, J., et al. (2021). Crucial conversation: Tools for talking when stakes are high (Third). McGraw-Hill.
Project Implicit. Harvard Implicit bias test. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016, July 14). What great listeners actually do. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-great-listeners-actually-do.
 Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016, July 14). What great listeners actually do. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-great-listeners-actually-do.
 Gallo, A. (2022). How to navigate conflict with a coworker. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from
 Project Implicit. Harvard Implicit bias test. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html