Curbing the Curse of Conflict – Part Two

This is part 2 of 3 in thinking about one of – if not the greatest energy-sucks in organizational and family life:  Conflict.

Last week, I suggested a three-part foundation (if you missed last week’s RFL, the three parts are described in a little more detail at the end of this):

Last week’s lessons:

1: Heighten your awareness of conflict.  Awareness creates new choices.

2: Conflict is always mutual.

3: I am responsible for the way conflict affects me. Nobody makes me mad or anything else.

If you’re aware you’re in conflict, know it’s mutual (whether the other consciously knows it or not), and know you’re responsible for your own feelings, then you’re ready.

Each step is simple and each step is HARD.  Knowing is easy.  Doing hard.  Every time I have done these it has worked.

1. Don’t try to solve it . . . in one sit-down.  (If that’s really impossible, see footnote *).  Instead:

2. Make it your goal to completely understand the other.    Conflict means you have two different pictures. She believes “sell.” You believe “buy.” He wants to discipline the kids, but you think they need slack. He wants to pull the trigger, but you think other strategies are available.

This is an important truth that we almost always lose sight of:  UNDERSTANDING the other does not mean giving up your view, doesn’t mean you’re wrong, doesn’t mean they will have the upper hand. It just means understanding them. See point 1: Don’t try to solve it in one sitdown.  Your chance to be understood will come. But for right now, you are learning, and you are building trust. Remember all conflicts are mutual, so having them be heard is working on the problem. (Yes, it would be nice for them to say: “No don’t ask me about my view, let me hear your view, because you’re probably right, and I’m probably being an idiot.” What a wonderful fantasy, but life doesn’t work like that.  If you’re unsure about that, think about the last time YOU took that standpoint!)

3.   To understand: Ask open-ended questions.  And use their words to deepen and broaden your (and often their) understanding of what they’re thinking and feeling.  I teach students to think of the computer icon below. Get their exact words.

In conflict, people often feel misunderstood. So, using their words closes the gap, so they feel understood and you are causing yourself to understand.  If you want to really become a Professional at this, learn to use these two words, “Say more.” Remember, you’re not making them right, except about what they understand and believe.  So you can understand.

To completely understand – now, I’m really upping the ante – understand their feelings.  Use their words if they share them, “So, you found it frustrating when I went ahead without you?” Or, if they haven’t verbalized their feeling, you might ask, “So, it sounds like you were frustrated when I …?”  And, if you can possibly and authentically do so, validate those feelings, saying for instance, “I can see why that was frustrating for you.”

Try it!

As my wife Jennifer and I joke with each other about conversations sometimes, “Okay, when do we get to the part about me?”  That’s next week.  Really.  If you can do the above, you have done a ton!

You can conclude by thanking them for sharing, for giving you something to think about.  Tell them you’d like to let it sink in.  If you’re human, doing such listening probably triggered arguments and feelings in you.  But you’ve done heroic work.  Let it steep.  If they insist on hearing your point of view, and if there is timeliness to reach resolution, have at it. But don’t stop listening. If they push back, listen more! But if you can get them to give you time to think about their thoughts and about your role and your perspective, take the time.

I am INTENSELY CURIOUS to know if you try it, and I’d love for you to share your experience in a Comment or in a direct email to me at  Of course, if you disagree in ways, share that, too, as you

Lead with your best self.

* On urgency:  We live in a state of constant urgency it seems. But what is really urgent? Often our urgency is subjective, deadlines we have set, or anxiety that presses in on us and seeks resolution. My 28 year old and I lived in near-constant conflict. We forced ourselves to the “bargaining table” because things felt urgent.  But the urgency was so often a subjective matter, and the same feelings that gave rise to urgency made it so hard for us to be patient with each other (and with ourselves). Her fears that I was not understanding her, and mine that she was disrespecting me, kept us from being able to hear the other’s perspective.  If there is urgency, then exercising the heroic restraint of listening first becomes 10 times more important.


Elaboration of last week’s 3 lessons:

Lesson 1: Heighten my awareness of conflict.  If I don’t, I’ll perpetuate it. It exists. Admit it. Awareness creates the possibility of learning and choice.  Denial?  Not so much.

Lesson 2: Conflict is always mutual. I don’t have to punch someone in the nose or call them an asshole for them to feel that I am in conflict with them. And you know how others can squash, hurt, befuddle you – even when they don’t know it and don’t intend it.

Lesson 3: I am responsible for the way conflict affects me. Nobody makes me mad. They may stimulate the rise of anger, but it’s my anger.  Nobody makes you sad. They may say or do things that trigger sadness, but they don’t make you sad.  Own your feelings. It’s the essential beginning point.

  • Hi Dan,

    This post got my attention this Monday Morning; for this reason…I don’t think all conflict is mutual. I think that knee-jerk reaction you have when someone brings something negative to your life is a natural and good reflex. Because, it says something just hit my life and, now I need to maintain my positive space and energy but, I also need to address it, remove it from my life, remove myself from the environment etc.

    I think the “types” of conflict is probably the next level of this conversation. Some conflict is simple and you just remove yourself. Other types create a righteous indignation and others may have to be resolved with 3rd party assistance. I assess the type of conflict that interrupts my positive space because once you learn to be tranquil you learn that certain negative energy can take your life on a tailspin if you don’t assess conflict.

    I do agree that conflict can be a lesson. When you learn to be the leader of your life and be fully present in your life, there is an ownership that is beautifully and indelibly tied to your purpose and life’s work. That’s why I don’t believe all conflict is mutual. I learned some things about conflict when I was 13 years old, I learned something again at 16 and 17. I learned when I got to graduate school that people will seek you out to try and pull you into their conflict. I learned after I graduated from grad school that some conflict is criminal. Someone lied on me. We had lived in the same city, but we were not friends. When I had to explain to the person in authority who my friends were, who I had a relationship with…I was perplexed by the fact that this person in authority believed something that wasn’t true and they would not ask me or talk to me right away about the situation. Hence, I was caught up in conflict that I should have never had to deal with. I had to be proactive and assertive enough to not be affected by someone’s lie. And to not be depressed by the fact that society likes drama. We live for the story. We talk about our favorite shows on Monday morning and we don’t remember not to let that love for drama tv creep into our professional life. We forget that somethings are not personal they are 9-5p and if personal we need to make sure we got both sides present to get the truth. It’s like being assaulted when you were minding your own business, someone stealing something out of your purse in the comforts of your home, someone portraying themselves to be you… You only get pulled into conflict sometimes because you’re a victim and people are deceptive and criminal. Yesterday, you had no problems but tomorrow you encounter the unstable pathology of someone whom you don’t have a relationship with. Hence, this doesn’t always have to be a male-female situation. It could be a woman that is the culprit.

    I don’t know if I misunderstood your conversation about conflict. And perhaps my experience is too specific to be related to the topic. However, I thought it important to note, that not all conflict is mutual. I don’t even think the emotions in conflict are mutual. I think sometimes they are cause and effect. I do think you have to enough emotional equity to not let others try and derail your life. For example, forgiveness is not optional for believers but forgiveness with boundaries is part of perfecting the believer. This is a great conversation to have Dan, it really is.
    Superbowl Sunday, I had what I would call a very trivial or primitive conflict. But, it is a conflict nonetheless. We started talking about social reform and DACA and diversity and foreign affairs. I hold true to the notion that not everything is Blue or Red. I realized that preference was really the issue in this conversation. It wasn’t a matter of developed belief overtime with observation and experience. It didn’t matter though, everyone is entitled to an opinion. So, I prefaced my entry into the conversation with “what are your numbers” for your belief. In other words, there’s a 134% increase over a short period of time into this state’s economy that will be addressed as social reform or radical change. How does the lives of the 134% increase (which by the way, change the demographics of majority and minority residents’ percentages) affect the tax base and the Department of Health & Human Services? It opened the door to have a real conversation and let some say “let me think about this” in order to better talk about the emotions and feelings associated with the topic. This type of conflict is mutual.

    The conflict of being pulled into someone’s pathology whom you have no relationship with causes you to protect yourself and assess your support system. The noun aspect of conflict is kind of inanimate and as you say doesn’t have to have an effect on your life. The verb aspect, of what conflict can do to your life….hmmm is another level to this conversation. The affects and loss can be devastating

    Thanks for providing an opportunity to have lively discourse on this subject.

  • Dan, I agree with your suggestions for resolving conflict. I particularly agree that it is important to understand the other person’s point of view and a great way of doing that is to repeat their words. But I also want to point out that some conflict is good. When people express a viewpoint different than mine, they are at least being honest. And we cannot resolve conflict until we first get to an honest disagreement of opinion.

    I am evaluating a lot of things in light of the sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University involving Dr. Larry Nassar. It seems to me that one of the problems in the Nassar scandal is that too many people resolved the “conflict” too quickly. In other words, people who were informed about what Nassar was doing quickly closed their investigation and eliminated the conflict. The official attitude seemed to be, “put out the fire quickly.“

    A 17-year old gymnast complained to a nearby suburban police department about Nassar’s bizarre treatment for her scoliosis. His treatment included inserting his bare fingers into her vagina and massaging her breast. The police department investigated and talked to the doctor. He defended his technique with a PowerPoint presentation and presented the police with medical journals that apparently defended his technique. But the police department too quickly bought his explanation and without consulting with a medical expert, decided not to forward the investigation to the prosecutor. So there is an example of conflict resolved too quickly. So let us celebrate conflict. It is better than sweeping problems under the rug.

  • There is a kind of conflict where one party has the authority, making discussion or reason of no use, if it is the case the authority wishes to avoid responsibility or change their actions or policies. This happens in business arrangements where a goods or service is not provided unless the purchaser agrees to various limitations on their ability to disagree, or negotiate, or get a better result.

    I can make lists. Here is a short one. The satellite programing service which requires that in order to make a dispute over the service, the customer must include full payment with the complaint. Then the provider decides who is right. Hospitals, and all hospitals in the U.S. do this, so there is no alternative, which require consents to treat which limit the rights of patients. Insurance companies that have all the say in whether a claim is valid or not, and what it is worth.

    In the end some of these kinds of issues have no place to go but to court. But then, due to political appointment and other reasons, the highest courts of many states have biases, so that perhaps in some states the insurance companies almost always win; or in some states medical malpractice laws are written so stringently with caps on how much can be won due to political gerrymandering allowing insurance companies and medical providers to have the upper hand. The limits may be set at a rate that looks fair, but once a person knows the costs of such suits, the caps become a barrier to those seeking justice. So that a conflict may not be negotiable or win-able, or even in practical terms suitable to bring to court due to the economics.

    Laws often limit what can be done in conflicts. Laws limit our health care. Laws define relationships and the responsibilities within those relationships. Think of school teachers and how their interactions with students for good and bad have been legislated. Nurses know their legal limitations. Nearly every profession has legal limitations placed on them. So that a conflict may ultimately be with the law. There is often no practical way to negotiate or change the mind of the person who makes the decision when it is a matter of law. No matter how unjust it may be on some situations. Time limitations and financial limitations make any change to your benefit unobtainable.

    There are skilled manipulators who even though you think you can control your emotions, will tear a persons mental stability to pieces.

    There are worlds outside the conflict resolution sphere you describe.

  • >