Handling Conflict in a Healthy Way

8 minute read

Over the years, I’ve read many, many books on a wide range of both technical and non-technical topics, so people often ask me for book recommendations. While there seems to be a never-ending list of wonderful books with new ones coming out all the time, my hands-down top book recommendations have not changed for almost 2 decades: Crucial Accountability and Crucial Conversations.

Very early in my career, I was lucky enough to take a leadership course taught by an excellent teacher, and one of the course units was dedicated to studying the content of these two books (note, Crucial Accountability was called Crucial Confrontations at the time) and practicing the techniques they taught. I am not exaggerating when I say that out of all the books I’ve read, these books have had the single largest positive impact on both my career and personal life.

I didn’t grow up with great examples of healthy communication, especially when it came to handling conflict. As a result, my first instinct when dealing with confrontation was to not deal with it. I would disengage or try to change the subject rather than dealing with the problem head-on, but that only led to it festering under the surface, breeding growing resentment, which would pop up randomly in future conversations. However, these books completely changed the way I think about conflict and confrontation. While I’m not perfect at it, interpersonal conflict of all shapes and sizes happens frequently in life, so I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice and have become quite skilled at dealing with conflict in a healthy and positive way, which has helped me immensely both in my career and in my personal life.

I honestly believe if everyone on Earth read, internalized, and regularly practiced the skills taught in these books, the world would be a significantly better place to live. While I highly, highly recommend everyone read these books, I recognize people are busy, so I’m going to use the rest of this post to give a quick summary of some of the key concepts I’ve found most helpful.

The first thing to understand about conflict is that it arises due to missed expectations. Let’s illustrate with a simple example: Let’s say you and a friend agree to meet for dinner at a restaurant at 7 pm, and you arrive at 7 pm and your friend arrives at 7:30 pm. You had an expectation that your friend would be there at 7 pm, but they arrived 30 minutes late. Again, this is a very simple example, and realistically, your friend would probably apologize and explain why they were late, but it’s easy to tweak this into a higher stakes scenario. What if you two are also colleagues and this was dinner with a client to discuss an important business deal, and the two of you have been preparing for this dinner for weeks? Now you might not be quite so forgiving!

Generally, when conflict arises, your first indication will be your emotional reaction. Depending on the situation, you may feel a range of negative emotions including disappointment, irritation, and anger. It’s important not to ignore these feelings as they serve as your body’s natural alarm system to notify you of a problem. However, it’s also important not to let them completely dictate your actions in the moment, as strong feelings can lead you to say or do something you’ll regret later. Strong emotional reactions are one of the key reasons why handling conflict in a healthy way is so difficult, so handling a situation well requires some pre-work before you actually have a conversation with that person.

The pre-work is called “What/If” and involves you figuring out what the conflict is and if it actually needs to be dealt with. For the “what” part, remember, the source of conflict is missed expectations, so this step means figuring out what you expected to happen vs. what actually happened. In the books, this is called “defining the gap,” meaning the gap between what you expected to happen vs. what actually happened. For example, in the above cases, the expectation was you would both arrive at 7 pm, but the reality was you arrived at 7 pm and your friend arrived at 7:30 pm. The “if” part is deciding if the problem actually warrants a conversation at all. If this was truly a one-time thing or, say, your friend is moving away tomorrow and you’re never going to see them again, maybe you decide it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and it doesn’t warrant a conversation. This is the classic “pick your battles” cliché. Just be careful that you’re not always choosing that it doesn’t matter when, in reality, you’re just trying to avoid dealing with the conflict. If this is a person you’re going to interact with on a regular basis, such as a colleague or partner, it’s generally better to deal with conflict early.

Defining the gap may sound simple, but when emotions are running high, this can actually be quite difficult due to a phenomenon known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute someone else’s behavior to flaws in their personal character. In simple terms, it’s the tendency to jump to the conclusion that someone behaved in some way because they are “bad” or “evil” in some way. This may sound funny, but our brains do this A LOT. So much so, that it can happen unconsciously, almost like a reflex. For example, we might assume our friend showed up late to dinner because “they are selfish and have no regard for me and my time.” The biggest problems with these assumptions are that (1) they start us on the path of building resentment toward that person, and (2) if we allow ourselves to conclude that another person is “bad” or “evil” even, it means any unhealthy actions we take toward them as a result of that behavior are somehow justified.

The key to mitigating the fundamental attribution error is twofold: First, when defining the gap, stick to factual data only. “We agreed to meet at the restaurant at 7 pm. I arrived at 7 pm. They arrived at 7:30 pm.” It’s not, “They arrived at 7:30 pm, because they don’t value my time.” That last part is an assumption your brain tacked on, not a fact. Second, ask yourself the following question: “Why would a rational, reasonable person do this?” The answer you should arrive at is “I don’t know.” This changes your mindset from one of irritation or anger to one of curiosity. Once you get to a place of genuine curiosity, you are ready to have a healthy conversation.

Ask the person if you can talk to them in private about something and only proceed if they say yes. Don’t try to force the conversation if they’re not in a good place to have one; find a time that works for both of you. Begin by describing the gap, sticking only to factual information. Then, with genuine curiosity ask them what happened, and really listen to their answer. Ask clarifying questions and repeat your understanding back to them to ensure you actually understood it and to also let them know that you’re really listening and genuinely care about what they have to say.

What’s brilliant about this approach is it changes the entire idea of confrontation from an adversarial “fight” between you and them into you creating a safe environment where you can present a problem, get more insights about what happened from their point of view, and then the two of you can work together to solve the problem. Being in the engineering field, I’ve found this approach works incredibly well with my work colleagues, because everyone I’m working with tends to be problem solvers. For me personally, at least, I find working with others to solve problems energizing, as opposed to being angry at another person, which I find mentally exhausting and draining.

When you get to the point where you’re having a healthy dialogue with the other person, there tends to be a noticable sense of relief on both sides as tensions from the initial conflict ease. This is good; however, it’s also important to ensure the dialogue leads to a concrete resolution. Make sure the two of you agree on concrete steps one or both of you can take to prevent a situation like this from happening again in the future and hold each other accountable.

I hope you find this summary helpful, but it’s not a substitute for reading the books. For example, creating a safe environment for dialogue and problem solving can be easier said than done depending on the conflict, and the book goes into a lot of detail and various scenarios to help better equip you to do this. The authors’ company also has a free blog and email newsletter you can sign up for. I haven’t received the newsletter for quite some time, but I remember it being very helpful early on after reading the books, because people would send in real-life work conflict scenarios asking for advice, and I always found their answers on how to apply the skills to the specific situation thoughtful and helpful.

At this point, I’m starting to get worried people will think I’m being paid to write this post, but I promise I’m not (maybe I should have asked them to pay me? 😜). But again, I can’t stress enough how often I use these skills in my everyday life, both at work and personally, and I just want more people to have these skills that have and continue to serve me so well.

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