Making Conflict Work: Three Changes Leaders Can Make Right Now.

I’ve been involved in more than one survey of leaders to learn the challenges they face and the needs they have to be more effective.

One of my favorite questions in conducting such research follows: If you knew you could improve one facet of your leadership performance right away and in so doing reduce the level of anxiety and frustration you face, what would you change?

How would you answer that question?

The top three are almost always the same, regardless of the particular research project:

  • Dealing with conflict
  • Dealing with difficult people
  • Improving communication/listening

Of course the three are closely related and culminate in the one at the top of the list. Most of us don’t like conflict or confrontation, no matter which side of it we’re on. As leaders, it is a source of great frustration, whether it is between us and another individual or among those we are leading.

By definition, conflict is a challenge. “Easy conflict” is an oxymoron.

However, there is a great deal of research into interpersonal effectiveness that can help us reduce the knotted stomachs and nervous nights that often precede and follow a tough conflict situation. (I’ve listed a few of the very best sources below. All are highly recommended.)

Managing conflict is inevitable – in fact needed – in any relationship. But it doesn’t have to beat you up.

And so I offer this post series. In it, I’ll present three specific behavior changes you can make right away that will help you achieve your goals in conflict management. But, before I get to the first change, let’s start right there.

Your goals for conflict.

Whether we speak (or admit) them or not, most of us have three goals for conflict:

  • We want to win the argument – we want to prove we are right by having the best facts or most convincing approach.
  • We want to control the other person – we want him/her to do or think what we want.
  • We want to punish the other person – whether by blame, or a subtle sting, we want the other person to be sorry for causing the conflict. It’s cathartic for us, and, we think, teaches the other person “a lesson.”

If you’ve ever been on the other side of a conflict with a person who wanted to beat you, control you or punish you, you know nothing good can come from those goals. They result in power struggles, arguments, bruised feelings and wounded relationships.

I’d like to suggest with the research that you change your goals for conflict and that you have only two in every conflict with which you’re involved, whether in church, at work, or at home.


Goal #1: Protect the Relationship.

When you have your emotions in check enough to be able to discuss them respectfully and when you value the health of the relationship more than you value being right, you position yourself for a win-win conflict. When you tell the truth with compassion and do the work necessary to empathize. You have a much greater opportunity to avoid death and destruction and achieve collaboration and cooperation.

Goal #2: Solve or Address Problems.

When you listen closely and separate the person from the problem you are more likely to be heard yourself. When you focus on how the situation might be improved for the future in a way that values both persons’ concerns, you might just have a discussion you don’t have to dread.

That’s it. Two goals – and only those two – for any conflict with which you’re involved. You’ll be amazed at how effective they can be.

In the next post, I’ll write about the first change you can make that will help you immediately. But for now, think about the two goals that work in conflict:

1. Protect the relationship.
2. Solve or address problems.

How would your approach to handling conflict improve if you worked at those two goals? How can you make it happen?

The Best Conflict Management Sources

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Challenging Conversations – Strategies for Turning Conflict into Creativity


  1. […] In Part 1 of this series, I established that dealing with conflict and managing “difficult” people are traditionally the most often mentioned needs in surveys of leaders. I also mentioned the importance of examining your goals for conflict and making sure they are the right ones.  (We often start off on the wrong foot by wanting to win, punish or control, whether those objectives are conscious or subconscious.) […]

  2. […] Part 1 of this series, I established that dealing with conflict and managing “difficult” […]