Steven Thulon, retired USAF Superintendent, summed up leadership succinctly when he said, “Conflict builds character. Crisis defines it.” Conflict is not only an unavoidable component of everyday business interactions, it’s an essential ingredient for leadership success. Why? Because while a homogenized, agreeable team may make for a more peaceful workday, experts believe that diverse opinions and well-managed conflict can lead to greater productivity and ultimately, better results.

With that in mind, here are five tips for managing conflict in the office and beyond:

1. Be Open.

As Fortune 500 leadership advisor Mike Myatt said, “Leadership is a full-contact sport—and if you cannot address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, you should not be in a leadership role.” So, our first tip for managing difficult conversations is actually the hardest: allowing them to happen in the first place.

A recent survey conducted in the U.K. found that 57 percent of employees would “do almost anything” to avoid having a difficult conversation. And while we may be a bit more confrontational here in the U.S., we’ve all witnessed (or … ahem … perpetrated) similar tactics to avoid “real” talk.

As a leader, it’s critical that you foster an environment of open communication, both within your team and within the larger environment of the company culture. Encourage your employees to ask questions, present ideas and raise challenges—respectfully—both in one-on-one sessions and group gatherings. This will make ALL conversations seem easier.

2. Be Inclusive.

While it may seem counterintuitive, you may want to first consider whether or not you’re even the right person to engage in the conversation in question. Were you asked to mediate a minor conflict between two junior staff members? If so, is there an aspiring manager on your team who might take the reins in this situation? You could help the aspiring manager by assessing the situation and planning for the intended goal together.

Does one of your vendors need a refresher course on expectations, and is there a team member you’re grooming to take over that account? For less seasoned managers, this can feel like shirking one’s duties; rest assured that appropriate delegation is a critical (and grossly underappreciated) step in the journey to effective leadership.

3. Be Prepared.

As all good Boy and Girl Scouts know, preparation is essential to the success of any endeavor—whether it’s a prickly conversation or a backcountry camping trip. A recent survey revealed that 66 percent of employees facing difficult conversations reported elevated anxiety in advance of the meeting, and 11 percent even had nightmares! So start by setting up the meeting a few days in advance, giving both parties time to get their thoughts (and feelings) in order.

Next, take steps to keep the meeting on an even emotional keel: set a neutral location, make sure all parties know exactly what is to be discussed, collect the facts you need to make your point and formulate a loose script. It can also be helpful to remind yourself what you want to get out of this conversation; a general “clearing the air” talk will have different goals than a conversation targeting a specific (and non-negotiable) behavioral change.

4. Be Present.

It seems so simple, but being fully present for any conversation, let alone one everyone is dreading, can be incredibly challenging. Start by arriving on time and removing distractions like phones and laptops. If you’re discussing an HR issue that requires documentation, be sure to have a copy for yourself and the other party.

As a leader, the onus will be on you to establish the framework of the conversation, asking pertinent questions and citing specific examples, if need be. But once you’ve done that, it’s important to let your employee have a voice. Give their silences a respectful space as they gather their thoughts, and use these opportunities to ask open and exploratory questions. Your goals should always be deeper understanding and a clearer path for the future.

5. Be Positive.

Whether your conversation is a one-on-one chat about productivity or a team meeting to discuss disastrous quarterly sales, it’s important that your employees see the conversation as a step towards resolution. In the hands of a compassionate leader, even a discussion of “probationary period goals” can be framed as “clearing the pathway to success.”

By focusing on the future rather than the past, you can use this situation to re-establish your expectations in a positive light, ensuring that milestones are clearly defined. Most importantly, make sure your team understands that they have your full support and confidence as they work towards their new goals.


Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
By Kerry Patterson

Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond
By Jay Sullivan

Just Listen: Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone
By Mark Goulston