Making Conflict Work: Three Things Leaders Can Change Right Now, Part 3

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

In this post, I’ll address the second change leaders can make right now to make conflict work:

The Second Change You Can Make Right Now: 
Resist the Temptation to Pursue Rightness, Fairness or Justice 
and Instead Deepen Understanding 

Imagine a conversation in which both people are working hard to prove each is “right” and the other is “wrong.” Or imagine another conversation in which both people are working hard to establish that they are being “fair” while the other is being “unreasonable.” Those aren’t conversations, they are arguments.

The problem with pursuing a conflict so that you get what’s coming to you is that, often, that’s exactly what you get.

As leaders, we get caught in the trap of presenting the best argument, or proving that we are right and the other person is either wrong or, at least, less right than we are. The difficulty, of course, is that most conflicts or difficult conversations aren’t truly about the facts in evidence, but about how people feel about those facts.

Here are some examples:

You are trying to convince your elderly father that moving into an assisted living facility is the best choice for him. They have the finest medical care, the best facilities, a doctor on call 24 hours and, they are reasonably priced. You can’t understand why your Dad is being so unreasonable and why he seems to want to stay in that old drafty house he’s lived in by himself for 15 years since your Mom passed away. You can make the case that you have the best facts and he has the weakest argument.

Except that’s not really what this particular conflict is all about.

It’s really all about how he feels about you taking control of his life or how lonely he will feel surrounded by strangers in a nursing home. It’s about how you feel at having to be “the parent” and how uncomfortable you are in that new role. It’s about how you feel considering your siblings have talked you into having the conversation at all. Why couldn’t one of them have done it? If the conversation is only about who has the best argument, it misses completely the issue that really are most important between the two of you.


You are trying to convince your associate pastor, Benny, why he shouldn’t be the one to deliver the Christmas Eve message this year. It’s a tradition for Benny to preach and for he and his wife and daughters to sing a carol they’ve chosen. But this year, you want to give Terry a chance for such a high profile spot because of the work Terry has done in the community during the past year. Benny can make the case that he is most experienced and best qualified and he might be “right”.

Except that’s not really what this particular conflict is all about.

It’s really about your frustrations at Benny always countering every decision you make. It’s about Benny feeling pushed aside by Terry and kicked to the curb – and at Christmas no less. It’s even about how both you and Benny feel about Terry. If you both focus only on who can make the best case, you’re missing what’s happening under the surface and making the conflict difficult in the first place.

It’s only when you get beneath that surface that you can have a conversation that protects the relationship and is helpful in solving problems for the future.




We get caught in the trap of pursuing the best argument or the most impressive facts or the most reasonable approach. We pursue “justice,” “fairness” or “victory” when those things might be out of reach, or even destructive to the relationship. This may be the case because, as Christian leaders, we are in constant pursuit of The Truth or the truth. Both matter to us. But, perhaps when it comes to conflict, they matter too much.

But, usually, in a conflict or difficult conversation, both people involved feel the same way. So it becomes a butting of heads and an argument on an endless loop.

As the leader, be the one who helps the two of you break out of the loop and make real relational progress together.

Questions to Ask Yourself
  • What am I missing about his point of view?
  • I wonder how it is that her story makes complete sense to her, but it doesn’t to me?
  • In what ways am I assuming he is wrong and unreasonable?
  • How can I understand her better than I do right now?
  • Is there any way that we both can have what we need out of this situation?
  • Is collaboration possible? Or if that’s not possible, compromise?
Things to Say to the Other Person
  • Tell me where you think I’m misunderstanding you.
  • As the leader, I am responsible for the final decision, but I wonder if there is a way we can collaborate.
  • I want to know what’s going on under the surface of our conversation.
  • You seem particularly frustrated by this situation – I think we both are. Any idea why?
  • Where is it you think I’m being unreasonable?

There’s nothing easy about managing conflict in a way that is Godly, protects the relationship and works to solve problems. But the work done in the interest of a healthy conversation is always worth it in the long run.

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