Managing Conflict & Leading Tough Conversations!
Whitepaper by Regina Fasold, Executive Coach


When conflict is ignored—especially at the top—the result will be an enterprise
that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”
- Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash, 2003


If you're in charge of people, you know how much of your time gets spent putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. Managers and leaders we have coached have reported that at least 20 percent of their time is consumed by taking care of conflict. 

Conflict should be neither suppressed nor ignored within an organization. When it goes unnoticed, it only gets worse and invites stress and disengagement. Eliminating conflict however is not the answer. To avoid disaster and maintain a healthy environment conflict needs to be dealt with appropriately, no matter how difficult this appears to be.

Job insecurity, a fluctuating economy, the stress of technological advancements, increased commoditization, and an epidemic of outsourcing and downsizing are only some of the factors that are putting stress on today’s work force. It may be even getting worse. Anytime there are cutbacks, there is a rise in conflict. Trend analysts predict workplace conflicts will rise because people face increased pressure to produce more and better with fewer resources.

Through my work as an executive coaching I’ve identified a process that can easily be learned to better manage conflict and tough conversations. Following aspects must be considered when dealing with conflict and difficult people:

  1. The Leadership Edge
  2. Three Sources of Conflict
  3. Expectations and Assumptions
  4. Style of Communication and Perception
  5. How Executives and Organizations contribute to Conflict
  6. 19 Tips for Managing Conflict and Difficult Conversations


1. The Leadership Edge

There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict and one’s perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, effective managers resolve conflicts by employing four key behaviors:

  1. Gaining perspective
  2. Creating solutions
  3. Expressing emotions
  4. Reaching out

Those who succeed are deemed more suitable for promotion. But most managers are trained in the competencies required for their careers and industries. They aren’t necessarily astute negotiators of people’s emotions and relationships. That may be behind the recent upsurge in demand for coaching services. The more people are stressed, the more they need help in managing their emotions and relationships. Conflict is often the catalyst.

Managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams move beyond the status quo. Your task, as a leader and manager, is to conduct tough conversations that help address workplace conflicts without wasting time. Conflict isn't something to take lightly.

Tough conversations are hard to have, worth having, but not worth risking poor outcomes. That's why I recommend working with an experienced coach. Feel free to contact me for a complimentary consultation.


2. Three Sources of Conflict

From my experience working with organizations there are three factors behind most organizational conflicts:

  1. Differences in behavior and communication styles
  2. Differences in priorities and values
  3. Workplace conditions, including poor communications from leaders

Some personalities just seem to clash. It's important to determine why two people rub each other the wrong way. Do they have opposing behavioral styles?

For example, an extrovert who is open and expressive could view an introvert as hard to read and perhaps untrustworthy. Likewise, a time-conscious, highly organized employee may harshly judge a spontaneous colleague. Someone who is highly analytical and precise might view an intuitive person as impulsive and flaky.

Teaching team members to understand basic human differences can help them overcome tendencies to judge and make assumptions. They can learn to accept coworkers’ differences. Consider using any of the commonly accepted assessment tools that we offer.

I offer several options, such as one-on-one coaching and workshops, for learning about personalities in the workplace to help deal with differences and conflicts. An extrovert can learn to ask questions to draw out an introvert. The highly organized team member can learn to set more realistic deadlines. Understanding personality differences can help prevent clashes and conflicts before they become ongoing problems. 


3. Expectations and Assumptions

People have different needs, values, beliefs, assumptions and cultural frameworks. Our expectations are fed by past experiences. If you erroneously assume that others are essentially mirror images, your lack of clarity can create strife.

Leaders and teams must explore others’ expectations, assumptions, underlying values and priorities. This can be accomplished in group- or individual sessions, led by a manager or coach. When there is an elevated degree of conflict, it's wise to retain a professional who is trained in interpersonal skills and mediation.

Behind every complaint is an underlying value that goes unsatisfied. Asking questions like “What’s really important here?” often allows people to uncover competing values and priorities. You will facilitate more authentic conversations when you ask the right questions.

Reflect upon these ideas for a moment. What do you see as a major source of conflict in your organization? I'd love to hear from you.

4. Style of Communication and Perception

There are three fundamental communication styles:

  1. Non-assertive communication style
  2. Assertive communication style
  3. Aggressive communication style

Each of us has a preference, and we’re capable of switching to another, as appropriate. We are sometimes unaware, however, of how others perceive us. You may think you’re being appropriately assertive, but a more sensitive or resentful coworker may perceive you to be aggressive.

Add to the mix gender differences, our personal agendas, and it’s easy to see how communications breakdown and breed conflict. I see this happen all the time in organizations. It's hard to know how we come across with the language and tone of voice we're so accustomed to using.

5. How Executives Contribute to Conflict 

Executives contribute to conflict by communicating ambiguously, either intentionally or unintentionally. Most of us want to avoid conflict, but we can sometimes “talk out of both sides of our mouths” and give mixed messages. Such ambiguous communication fosters an organizational climate that discourages commitment (at best) and promotes conflicts (at worst).

I'm not saying executives do this on purpose (although some do). But highly educated people are skilled in the language of diplomacy and often try to address the needs and desires of a wide audience. In trying to please everyone, they craft message that border on double-speak. This is more of an explanation but not a rationalization and it certainly isn't a good excuse.

Leaders need to be more direct, frank and clear. I'd like to see more executives stand up and remove the barriers to candor. There are plenty of reasons why not more of them tell it like it really is, one reason I identified is fear of getting burned in the process due to a weak conflict resolution and communication’s skills. This does not have to be your reality, we can help!

Many executives are sitting too close to the blackboard to see their communication errors. An unbiased professional coach or consultant can spot weaknesses and help correct approaches that contribute to conflict. Schedule a complimentary consultation 


6. How Organizations Contribute to Conflict

Several conditions make a workplace fertile ground for conflict:

  1. If an organization has a rigid hierarchical structure, with anauthoritarian leadership culture, expect incessant arguments and a robust rumor mill. In this type of environment, open communications are discouraged.
  2. Is there a poorly instituted reward/promotional system, where unfair favoritism occurs?
  3. When managers are forced to compete for limited resources, their agendas can prevent them from getting along with others. They become more concerned with their personal or departmental gains and forget about the organization’s overall well being.
  4. Change itself can destabilize relations because people struggle when they’re forced out of their comfort zones. Companies involved in mergers and/or acquisitions, for example, experience more conflict. Rapidly changing environments create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety and conflict. 

7. Tips for Managing Conflict

I'd like to summarize some practical steps for dealing with conflict at work. I've found many of these tips useful, no matter what kind of organization, or what kind of position you're working in. In the work I do with managers, I don't know anyone who can't benefit from one or several of these tips. I hope you find them useful too. For more information visit: 

4 Ways to React to Conflict:

When conflict occurs, you can choose to react in one of four different ways:

  1. You can play the victim and act betrayed. You can complain to those who will listen and create alliances against the offending party. This rarely works in the business world, yet many workers actively engage in such passive-aggressive behaviors instead of directly addressing conflict.
  2. You can withdraw, either by physically removing yourself from the situation or emotionally and mentally disengaging. This may involve walking out of a heated meeting, moving to a new unit or team, or quitting your job. A Gallup Organization survey reports that, at any one time, as many as 19 percent of an organization’s employees are actively disengaged. Worse yet, more than half (55 percent) are not engaged, simply putting in their hours. 
  3. You can invite change—an option most people never consider because it involves backing down from their original stance. Those engaged in personal battles or who remain stubbornly attached to their core beliefs may think change is tantamount to failure. Healthier individuals can look for win-win possibilities that open the door to creative solutions.
  4. You can confront people honestly, openly and candidly. This is the preferred option, but it’s the most difficult to put into practice because we often fear conflict and lack the skills to work through it.

6 Keys to Managing Conflict:

When conflict occurs, leaders must address it as soon as possible to prevent it from escalating into a chronic or pervasive problem. The following steps are critical:

  1. Create rules of engagement. Establish procedures and rules for addressing conflict fairly.
  2. Demonstrate the importance of caring. Nothing can be resolved in an atmosphere of distrust.
  3. Depersonalize the issues. Focus on behaviors and problems, not on personalities.
  4. Don’t triangulate or bring in political allies.
  5. Know when to let it go.
  6. Know when to bring in a professional mediator, coach or trainer. Contact us by email or call 321-466-7066

9 Tips how to Lead Difficult Conversations:

  1. Always start with the other person’s agenda.
  2. Listen without saying a word 70 percent of the time. Confirm you understand what the other person is saying 20 percent of the time, both verbally and nonverbally. In the remaining time, ask questions that advance the conversation’s meaning.
  3. Become a people reader. Pay attention to others’ facial expressions.
  4.  Focus not only on what people are saying, but also on what they are not saying.
  5. Frequently confirm what people are thinking, feeling and believing. Don’t assume you know what they mean.
  6. When people are trying to make their points, practice the art of saying “tell me more.”
  7. Don’t go into difficult conversations unprepared. First, think about where you want to end up. Second, think about what’s really going on. Finally, begin the process of discovering and designing an action plan.
  8. From a communication standpoint, you get what you want by first giving others what they need.
  9. At the end of every important conversation, review the commitments.

If you found this information helpful then please share it with other leaders, colleagues and direct reports. For additional “Executive Advice” visit our Newsletter Archive where you will find a collection of tips and hands on advice about a wide range of hot leadership topics.

To your ongoing Success!


Regina Fasold, President & Executive Coach

Regina Fasold
Fasold Global Consulting
801 International Parkway
Suite 500
Lake Mary Florida 32746
United States of America