Making Conflict Work: Three Things Leaders Can Change Right Now, Part 2.

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.)

In this post, I’ll suggest change #1.

The First Change You Can Make Right Now: 
Ask Questions Instead of Defending or Explaining

The most dangerous temptation in a difficult conversation or conflict is to defend, explain or blame. When two people in a conversation are defending themselves, you usually have an argument, not a conversation that protects the relationship and solves problems.

Here are some examples:

Person you are leading: “When we had my performance evaluation last month, it sounded as though my job was in jeopardy…”

What you are tempted to say: “That’s not what I meant it all. I think you really mis-read the situation.”

Instead, what you might ask: “I’m sorry that’s how it came off to you. What did I say or do that led you to that conclusion?”


Person you are leading: “I’m not sure you’re listening to me.”

What you are tempted to say: “Of course I’m listening to you. I work very hard at that. You may be the one who isn’t listening.”

Instead, what you might ask: “That”s definitely not my intent, is that why you’ve been so frustrated?”


Person you are leading: “Well, frankly, I think you play favorites.”

What you are tempted to say: “What! I bend over backwards to be fair and you accuse me of playing favorites!”

Instead, what you might ask: “Wow, if that’s your perspective, I can imagine you would be angry. How have you arrived at that conclusion?”


There are a few things that happen when you choose to ask questions rather than defend or explain.

First, it keeps you focused on understanding them, rather than on thinking what your next point of attack will be. When you are in a question asking mode, you are more likely to hear and see what they are really saying. You’ll pay attention both to verbals and non-verbals rather than on preparing to pounce.

Secondly, when you ask questions, that keeps the other person talking and that helps you to better understand their perspective in the conflict. Those you lead are much more likely to listen to you after they’ve felt that you have truly heard them. It’s a matter of – “seek first to understand and then to be understood.”

Third, it’s much easier to communicate care when you are asking questions than when you are defending yourself – even if you feel defense is justified in a particular situation. (The pursuit of “justice” of “fairness” is usually what causes a conversation to turn into an argument.)

The next time you are in a conflict-laden or difficult conversation, stop when you are about to defend or explain and, instead, ask a question. You’d be amazed at the difference such an approach can make. It doesn’t mean that you never get to explain yourself, it just means you do everything you can to understand first – and that usually means asking questions.

Some Helpful Questions
  • What did I say or do that caused that response?
  • Did I make you angry or just confused?
  • Tell me more about how that felt from your perspective?
  • What can I do to be clearer in the future?
  • How can we avoid coming to this point in the future?
  • What’s the best way for me to communicate these kinds of things to you?
  • How do you think we got to a point of such mis-understanding?
  • Tell me what expectations you have for me and then I’ll share mine with you.

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. […] Part 2, I discussed the first change leaders can make: Asking questions instead of defending or […]