How NOT to Deal With Conflict at Work and Otherwise

Hint: Blowing your top at the office or at home is usually not a good idea!

A man and a woman fighting
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Conflict is part of life. How we deal with it – or how it deals with us – can mean the difference between job promotion or being sacked, a happy, loving marriage, or one where you dread coming home from work.

At one time or another we have all opened our mouths before putting our brains in gear with predicable results, some permanent.

And who hasn’t wished for a guidebook on handling conflict in a constructive manner?

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When I look back at my life as a lawyer, I so wish that someone had taken me aside before I spoke and gave me the lessons found in a marvelous book from Harvard Business Review called the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict by Amy Gallo.

I had the most interesting chat with Amy, and asked her to set out the steps that will lead to disaster when faced with some conflict on the job or at home.

1. Assume that your version of the events is the truth.

Consequences: You end up debating what happened instead of focusing on a resolution.

A trap we often fall into is assuming that we see everything clearly and the other person is mistaken. Likely, they are doing the exact same thing. Therefore, consider that you might be wrong and that there is another explanation. By making that possibility clear, the chances for resolution increase dramatically.

2. Focus on being right instead of reaching a solution that works for everyone.

Consequences: You will fail to reach a resolution and alienate the other person.

Instead, think clearly about what you want from this conversation. Where possible, focus on a shared goal, something that you both want.

3. Assume this is simply a personality clash.

Consequences: You get stuck debating aspects of personality rather than focusing on what needs to be accomplished, such as getting the project completed on time.

Therefore, try to determine what the underlying issue is beyond personality. Is it about the timing of when the new product can be rolled out? Is it a disagreement over the goal — what we are trying to achieve? By making the discussion purely about how to solve the problem, personality is removed from the equation.

4. Have the conversation without asking yourself:

  • What do I need?
  • What does our company need?
  • What are our common goals?
  • What is it the other person wants to achieve?
  • Can I help them accomplish it while facilitating my goals?

Consequences: It will take longer to resolve if you have not thought through what is at stake and what the conflict is truly about.

Instead, make a good faith effort to see things from the other person’s point of view.

5. Fail to prioritize the relationship over the disagreement.

  • Convince yourself they lack good faith and positive intent.
  • Insist on being in control.
  • Do not worry about hurting feelings.
  • Do not consider all the good the other person brings to your life.
  • Ignore the positive history you have had with them.

Consequences: You will damage trust and rapport with your co-workers or spouse.

You will be seen as inflexible, uncaring, having to be right, lacking empathy and concern for others’ feelings. You are laying the foundation for losing your job or driving a wedge between you and those who are most important in your life.

Rather, see yourself and the other person as on the same side of the table and the issue a threat to you both requiring collaboration. By demonstrating a willingness to change your mind or reconsider your opinions, you signal that they are dealing with someone who cares and is reasonable. It gives them permission to change their mind.

6. Fail to control your emotions. Scream. Yell. Make clear to everyone that you are a bully.

Consequences: The conversation shuts down! You risk permanently damaging your credibility and reputation. It is nearly impossible to make good decisions when you are overheated, angry or when you have lost control.

Instead, focus on your goal, and write out a list of objectives for your meeting.

Say how much you care about this topic and, “Any emotions you may see are not a sign of disrespect, but rather of how passionate I feel about this. So, if I say something that may hurt your feelings, I apologize in advance and ask you to underhand that it is not my intent.”

Concluding our chat, Amy offered this common-sense advice:

“Never assume these will be easy or short conversations. Sometimes we want them to be over quickly, but in reality, it often takes a series of discussions to reach a resolution.”

Also, I would add: Have coffee and something to munch on available for all participants, as we reason better when our blood sugar is where it should be.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."