4 Tips to Help Transform Conflict


by Grace Judson

I was going to start this post by asking if you’ve ever been stuck in a conflict at work—but that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? We’ve all gotten stuck in a work conflict.

Whether it’s a colleague or our boss who’s making life miserable for us, conflict is an inevitable part of the workplace. If we’re going to be honest, it’s an inevitable part of life overall. Who hasn’t experienced conflict with a friend, family member, or partner? Somehow, we muddle through. We get angry and fight, or we get anxious and yield, or we try to pretend it’s not happening… or somewhere in between.

But with the right tools, you can change conflict into something more peaceful and constructive.

Here are four tips to set you along that path.


The first challenge in a conflict situation is managing the emotions swirling around when you’re faced with someone who’s pushing your buttons.

We’re all familiar with the fight—freeze—flight response that our emotional brain defaults to when we’re under stress. It’s safe to say that we’re also familiar with how it can lead us to do and say things we regret later on! Mediators from the Center for Understanding in Conflict teach a simple, effective tool to help reduce the impulse toward emotional reactivity. It’s called the Three Breaths, and that’s exactly what it is.

Breathe. Deeply and slowly, three times.

It’s hard to remember to do this when you’re in the middle of a tense situation. And it makes all the difference in the world for your ability to respond instead of react.

Ask yourself

Why would a reasonable person act or speak the way they are? I know. Your first thought in reading that is probably, “But they’re not reasonable!”

Pretend they are. What might be driving them? What buttons of theirs have been pushed? You don’t have to be the one doing the pushing; they might be reacting to something someone else did or said, or even to something from their past. What’s stirring them up?

Why would a reasonable person behave this way?

And then ask yourself

How can you demonstrate understanding and even empathy for this person?

When you’re dealing with someone who seems unreasonable or out of line, it’s easy to put the responsibility for creating change on them. But as you may have noticed, that’s not typically very effective. After all, they’re busy thinking you are the unreasonable one who should be changing.

Christopher Voss, the former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI, says, “There’s almost no reason anyone should show you empathy if you haven’t shown it first. Be the first mover here and gain that advantage.” You may not be dealing with the life-and-death situations he handled for the FBI, but you certainly have an opportunity to learn from his example!

How can you show empathy for this person—even as they’re frustrating you, causing you trouble, and making you angry? If Voss and his team can demonstrate empathy for someone who’s holding a child hostage and demanding outrageous ransom, surely you can do the same for your partner in conflict!

Ask them

Depending on the situation, there are several questions you can ask that may help.

If someone is visibly upset, try asking, “What’s the worst thing about this for you?” When asked with a sincere desire to understand, this question can often stop an escalating argument in its tracks. Why? Because it shows that you really want to know what’s going on for them—you’ve asked about their experience instead of sticking to the guns of your argument.

It also makes them stop, think, and evaluate what’s happening. By doing this, you help them reduce their own emotionality, which can start to cool things down.

If it’s someone you know well and you’re fairly sure you understand their state of mind, you can say something like, “It seems to me that you might be feeling…” (and fill in what you suspect they may be experiencing).

Note the conditional language in this. “It seems to me that you might be feeling…” Never tell someone how they are feeling, or—even worse—how they should feel. You probably know from your own experience how infuriating that is.

As with any communication skill, these steps take practice. And, while practice may never make perfect in interpersonal relationships, it will definitely improve your ability to transform conflict into something less stressful and more productive.

Please note that in outlining these steps, I am not suggesting their use in any situation that involves harassment or bullying. If you’re being harassed or feel that your work performance and job satisfaction are being negatively impacted by someone’s inappropriate behavior, please don’t take it lightly. There are many resources on the web to help you handle these situations, which are far beyond the scope of this article. Hopefully you feel safe enough to talk with your boss or with someone from your HR department. But, if not, find another way to get help—which may include finding another job.

Your health, safety, and happiness are always primary.

iaap-capstone-webgraphic-horizontalGrace will be at the CAPstone Conference, demonstrating to those who go attend the certification bootcamp how the content of the CAP exam applies to their day-to-day work. If you would like to attend the certification bootcamp, there are limited spots available. Click here to learn more.

If you are interested in the CAP Certification program, click here.


About Grace Judson

Grace has a vision of a world where people talk about what matters.

Because they do, their businesses, careers, and lives flourish. Their professional and personal relationships thrive. They achieve their goals and enjoy meaningful success. And they make a difference in the world.

Her mission is to help leaders, teams, and individuals transform conflict, navigate tough business negotiations, and heal relationships.

She’s based in northwestern Arkansas, and she’s online at www.gracejudson.com, where you can find more about her work and her book, browse through her library of resources, and sign up to receive her newsletter of tips and practical action steps.

And she recently opened a private Facebook group called the Connection Incubator, where people learn how to have better conversations… conversations that nurture connections, that heal instead of hurt, that foster understanding instead of division, that lead to solutions instead of battles.

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