How to Manage Conflict at Work: Office Conflict Management and Difficult Conversations

Conflict Resolution Skills: How to Have Difficult Conversations at the Office

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Are you too eager to please and do you avoid having difficult conversations when conflicts arise? A desire to get along with others may be preventing you from addressing and undertaking office conflict management – and preventing you from advancing, writes Joann S. Lublin in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Increasingly, employers are hiring and promoting leaders who are skilled at managing conflict rather than avoiding it, according to Judith Glaser, the author of the new book Conversational Intelligence.

In an attempt to combat a culture of “artificial harmony,” for example, Southwest Airlines is now actively seeking to promote middle managers to executive positions based in part on their ability to bring conflicts to the surface and effectively resolve conflicts.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

Firms have begun to recognize that leaders who avoid confrontation tend to put off difficult decisions and allow problems to fester, says Glaser.

In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Putnam, 2000), Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen offer advice on how to address conflicts in our personal and professional lives. They note that managers often fear giving honest feedback; as a result, they end up sugarcoating bad news or even avoiding performance evaluations altogether.

The Three Types of Difficult Conversation

To make the task of giving feedback and addressing conflict less daunting, Stone, Patton, and Heen break down difficult conversations into three separate conversations:

Difficult Conversation 1.

The “What happened?” conversation.

Your discussion of the substance of a conflict – what each party perceives got them to this point – should be aimed at separating impact from intention. If one employee complains that another employee demeaned him, it is important to find out the intention of the person who is being accused. We often jump to false conclusions about others’ intentions.

Difficult Conversation 2.

The “feelings” conversation.

Emotions play a strong role in conflicts. Wise business negotiators give disputants plenty of space to explain how they are feeling. You can do so effectively by engaging in active listening, which involves paraphrasing what the other person has said as accurately as possible, asking open-ended questions aimed at revealing the other person’s motivations and interests, and acknowledging the other person’s emotions and concerns.

Difficult Conversation 3.

The “identity” conversation. Our deepest concerns about our identity often can be found at the root of our conflicts of others. Such identity concerns include questions about whether we are competent, respected, and ethical. Consider whether the conflict might threaten how the disputants view themselves, then aim to help them maintain a positive self-image as you offer suggestions for improvement.

Honest and useful feedback can be just as difficult to accept as it is to deliver, write two of the authors of Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, in their new book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Portfolio Penguin, 2014).

Our own personal negotiation and dispute resolution “blind spots” – such as a bad temper or extreme sensitivity – can prevent us from being open to feedback and resolving conflict, according to Stone and Heen. To overcome our blind spots and move forward, we must consider the possibility that others have identified something about us that we ourselves cannot see. Ask for clarification and patience as you work on learning more about your blind spots and trying to do better.

Related Conflict Resolution Article: The Importance of Sincerity


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

Originally published in 2014.

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