You're Doing Conflict Wrong

(Like this content about workplace conflict, but want to hear about it instead of reading about it? Here’s the companion podcast episode.)

If you’ve got two people who interact, sooner or later, they’re going to come into conflict. It’s a fact of human relationships.

This article is about transforming conflict and using it to your advantage. If conflict seems like something to avoid… If it seems like something you can win… Then, you’re doing it wrong.

When people come to workplace conflict hoping and striving to win, then it’s only conflict itself that wins. (Did that sound cheesy?)

What’s wrong?

Some people are conflict avoidant. Some people are conflict seeking. Whatever our conflict tendency, the vast majority of us are doing it wrong the majority of the time.

When we find ourselves in a disagreement, many of us do one of two things.

  1. Some of us widen our eyes, straighten up, and start arguing our case to win the argument. I call this the Stand and Fight.
  2. Others of us lower our eyes, shrug our shoulders, walk away, and resign ourselves to the certain outcome that things won’t go our way. I call this the Slump and Slink.

Most of us do each of these things at different times and in different circumstances. Avoiders sometimes go on the attack, and fighters sometimes flee.

It doesn’t mean we’re bad people — the fact the we do conflict wrong. It makes sense we’d respond this way. Our brains are wired by ages of evolution to preserve our lives. Being a jerk at work is a survival reflex. You’ve heard of “fight or flight.” Here it is. Argue = fight. Resign yourself = flight.

Your more primitive brain regions see disagreement with a colleague, anticipate conflict, and categorize that conflict as a threat to life and limb. Rationally, you know that threat isn’t real. Rational mind, though, has been nearly shut off. Primitive brain regions have coopted the rational mind.

What’s it cost to get workplace conflict wrong?

If it’s my brain acting on instinct, my response to conflict is nature. Why fight “fight or flight?” Why not let nature do its thing?

Well, combat and hiding both have costs.

  1. Combat deteriorates relationships in ways we’re all aware of. Combative posturing leads to mistrust and resentment. So does hiding — in more subtle ways. We pick up on the subtle signals when people disagree but acquiesce anyway. We see them hiding their disapproval like a kid in class who thinks they’re adeptly passing notes unnoticed. It feels manipulative. We’re uncertain where we stand, and so the relationship is full of uncertainty and discomfort. Without candor, there’s no trust.
  2. Even though the points of disagreement loom large, there’s usually more common ground than there is difference. When we enter combat mode, that common ground gets lost. Team cohesion suffers, and adversarial stances prevent good information from being heard. The points of disagreement are almost always relatively small. In the scheme of things, the common ground you share outweighs the difference 100 fold. It’s the difference that gets all the attention, and the context of affinity gets lost.
  3. When we avoid workplace conflict, valid concerns that could benefit the relationship and the organization don’t get the attention they deserve. Disasters (large or small) may result from the lack of information sharing. Same thing when you voice your concerns at the top of your lungs. You’re telling everyone why you disagree. And you may have very important points. If you’re on the offensive, however, instead of calmly sharing your concerns, people get defensive in response. They stop listening. You may be right, but by behaving aggressively, you insure that you’re not heard.
  4. People say quietly to themselves, “I knew it. Saw that coming.” People feel distanced from each other, and judge others as unwise, and pushy. “If only they’d asked me, I could have told them.” Team cohesion suffers. Resentment builds in all directions. 

So, if our primitive brains lead us to this kind of behavior, what can we do about it?

Slow Down

Your primitive brain, and the fight or flight response is powerful, but it’s not the only game in town. You can teach yourself to override it.

1.  Breathe: Try something called box breathing. Practice it anytime you feel a bit anxious or angry.

  • Breathe in for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for four.
  • Breathe out on a count of four.
  • Hold for four.
  • Breathe in for four.
  • Repeat.

This may not be practical during an argument, but it’s great before initiating a conversation that you anticipate may be stressful. And, even during the interaction, bringing your attention to your breath, and doing this box breathing as much as possible is a powerful fight or flight defuser. Just ask a Navy Seal. This is a technique they use in actual battle.

2.  Look for common ground. Whether your impulse is to fight or to hide from the conflict at hand, you’re focused on the differences between you. And either way, your brain is racing. It’s going a mile a minute. Your primitive brain has given your rational mind an assignment, “Identify all threats and all weapons to counter those threats and all means of hiding from those threats.” Your rational mind is good at that, but it’s now using that talent for assessment in an irrational fashion. It’s operating from the conclusion, and finding support. That’s backwards. Here’s an opportunity to practice the principle derived from the system of improvisation — YES, AND. Prompt yourself with phrases like:

  • “Here’s what I like about this…”
  • “I think we agree on X, Y, and Z.”
  • “I can see we’re not on the same page about some stuff. Before we get into that, let’s work together for a moment to find all the areas of common ground.”

3.  Puzzle it. Now that you’re calm, and standing on a wide swath of common ground, you and your collaborator can look at your points of distance and debate them. Investigate them. Try on each other’s perspective and see how it fits. Distance yourself from your ideas. You’re looking together at a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find the solution. Your pieces aren’t better or worse. They’re not even yours. Theirs neither. They’re not your ideas or their ideas. All ideas are joint property. They’re all just puzzle pieces. And they either fit, or they don’t.

4.  Murder the unchosen alternatives. When the decision is made about which direction to go down — yours, theirs, a third unrelated one or a hybrid of the two — put your doubts to rest. You may not be able to quash them, but don’t feed them. Instruct yourself, “We’ve made a decision. Whether I agree with it or not is irrelevant. That ship has sailed, and my job is to back this plan of action to the hilt.” Every plan of action but the one that was chosen is done. Burn your boats. Don’t dwell. And if it’s your plan that’s in action, don’t gloat.

Reap the benefits

By following this approach to difference and workplace conflict, you’ll reap rewards. Your relationships will thrive. Your blood pressure will improve. Your organization’s decision making will be more effective. Your results will be better.

If you want, you can think of this as the “BLIMP” method. If you look above, you’ll see the steps… BLPM. Ok. BLIMP is a stretch. I just know people like acronyms.

Know anyone who’d benefit from this article? Please feel free to share it or it’s companion podcast episode far and wide.

An Effective Apology in 7 Parts

It’s often said in business, but rarely written in so many words: “Shit happens.” Sometimes, the shit that happens is our responsibility, and it lands on others.  Sometimes, hell, it hits the fan, and lands on a great many people. At these times, there’s damage to repair. So, humans have invented the apology. Properly deployed, the apology is an incredibly powerful tool of reconciliation and relationship repair.

Sadly however, apologies are rarely properly deployed.  When botched, they’re weak tools of repair at best. At worst, they’re powerful tools for relationship destruction and prohibiting reconciliation.

Bad Apology

Take for example the not-so-funny comedy-of-errors created by Chip Wilson, CEO of yoga apparel manufacturer LuluLemon Athletica. People loved them. Their yoga pants sold and sold and sold. Then, they changed their fabric source, and people complained that their pants were too sheer, revealing more than they wished to reveal when they bent over — which people often do in yoga class.

When CEO Chip Wilson could have said, “Sorry. My bad. We shouldn’t have gone with the cheaper fabric. Free, better replacements on me.” Instead, he essentially blamed customers whose thighs were too big. And he did it on national television, saying, “It’s, you know, really about the rubbing through the thighs… how much pressure is there.” Bad form, Chip, blaming the people who made you rich for the decline in quality and opacity.

Well, all is not lost. That’s why we invented apologies, for people like Chip (and the rest of us — to err is human). “I can fix this, he said. “I’ll post a video online,” he said. Good idea. He can reach thousands, millions of people to make amends for the offense he gave.

You get second chances

So he did make a video and post it online.  He said, ““I’m sad for the people at LuluLemon who I care so much about, that have really had to face the brunt of my actions.” Good. He’s aware that his actions affect his employees. That’s good. He continued, “I take responsibility for all that has occurred.” Good.  He owns it. Going on, “and the impact it has had on you. I’m sorry to have put you all through this.” Ok.  And now, surely, he’ll apologize to his customers, to women everywhere, and to anyone else he may have offended for blaming the sheerness of his clothing on too big thighs instead of cost-cutting.

But, no. He stops there. Not even a single word to customers. Why’d you post that online, Chip?  Oh, I see. You posted that online in order to add insult to injury.

Stock prices plummeted. Chip resigned. LuluLemon’s rep still hasn’t recovered.

So, that’s one way to really screw it up — fail to ever actually apologize to those who are waiting for your apology — but, how do you do it right?

It’s not a magic trick, and there’s no sleight of hand. If you determine that you’re responsible for something that’s caused someone else displeasure…

(Side note: I’ve said it twice now.  Responsible. Notice I didn’t say, “culpable.” You don’t have to be at fault. If you promise to give a presentation in Anchorage on Tuesday, that’s your responsibility.  If all flights in and out of Anchorage have been cancelled due to a storm for a week, that’s an act of god, and not your fault. Guess what… An apology is still warranted.)

An Adept Apology

If you’re responsible for something that’s caused someone else displeasure… Here are 7 ingredients you can mix together to make an effective apology soup.  You don’t need every one, every time, but when in doubt, don’t skimp.

  • Simply name the offending action or event.  “We at LuluLemon compromised the quality of our clothing by going with a less expensive fabric supplier.” Or, if you don’t catch it that early, “I blamed my customers on national television for the sheerness that was actually caused by an inferior material.” Or, if you were meant to be the keynote speaker in Anchorage, “I didn’t show up for your event.”
  • Express empathy. Demonstrate that you know that your actions had an impact, and that you have enough insight into others that you can imagine what that impact may have been. “You, our customers, came to rely on the quality of our apparel, and have been disappointed, and by showing a bit more tush than you intended, perhaps embarrassed.” Or, if you didn’t catch it that early, “You may have been shocked and disappointed, perhaps offended by my misplaced blame and fat-shaming.” Or, if you didn’t make it to AK, “You were left to twiddle your thumbs without your keynote speaker. I imagine that was disappointing and likely boring.”
  • Express regret or apology. You don’t have to grovel. Just note that different would have been better. “I’m sorry.” Or, “I wish we hadn’t changed suppliers.” Or, “We’d all be better off if we had stuck with a fabric that was working.” Or, “I never should have said those things.” Or, if you were due in the frozen north, “I wish I could have been there.”
  • Explain (without defense – sans defensiveness – no defending) why it happened. Use “I” language. This is not to be an excuse. Demonstrate that you have the insight that would make this apology meaningful.  This begins to give them assurance that you know enough to be able to prevent its happening again. By the way, keep it brief. This is meant to be a proof of concept, not a treatise. “I was really feeling the pressure, and I didn’t want to damage our (or my) image by admitting we’d compromised quality.” Or, “We put profits ahead of quality.” Or, if you flub the first one, “I really have a problem with prejudice against people who are overweight.” Or, “I lash out like a rabid dog when I feel cornered.”  Notice the “I” language. You didn’t see, “Your thighs are too big.” There was no, “The devil made me do it.” If all the flights were canceled for a week, “I couldn’t get a flight. All the flights were cancelled for a week.”
  • Offer a remedy. Very often, most of the time, you can’t completely heal the rift. But you can make a gesture that demonstrates that you are sincere. You may or may not be able to make the other party whole, but you can put your money (literal or figurative) where your mouth is. “If you bought pants that showed ass-pects you intended to keep hidden, while I can’t restore your dignity, your next pair of yoga pants — original opaque formula — is on me.” (Maybe you leave out the part about dignity, or maybe you keep it as a part of your naming the impact. Probably, you’d leave out the ass pun.) Or, if you’ve already put your foot in your mouth, “I’m going to sensitivity training next week.” Or, “I’m going to put myself in stockades in Time Square at noon on Tuesday. Please don’t throw hard vegetables.” Or, if you were kept from the cold, “Is there an opportunity for us to reschedule?”
  • Make a credible commitment for the future, and live up to it. “Credible” is important here. We’ve got to be able to believe you. Don’t promise the moon. “I promise never to utter another offensive word so long as I live,” is not credible. Try, “I’m going to call our old distributor and get the high-quality fabric back.” Or, if you’ve already offended half of America, “I’m going to strive to think before I speak, and care for our customers — body, mind, and soul. Namaste.” And, “I’m going to start doing yoga so I’m not so volatile under stress.” Or, if you couldn’t fly north, “I’m going to prohibit snow-storms for a week surrounding and future engagements.” Hopefully, you were paying attention, and caught that one. That’s not credible. And in a case where it’s not your actions that caused the breach, this ingredient isn’t needed.
  • Listen. Really listen. You may have given a credible and beautifully crafted apology, but don’t think that ends it. An apology cannot completely close the rift. Trust must be regained. The greater the rift, the greater the need for rebuilding. Emotional pressure has built up under the strain. Your apology opens the door to release the pressure. Now listen as the pressure escapes. You may get an earful. If you are still, non-reactive, peaceful, and receptive during the entirety of the eruption, you may find that when the other party is through venting, they will stop. Then there is peace. Then there is nothing more to say. All you need do is honor your commitments to repair the relationship.

Why Apology Matters

Not every rift requires all of these ingredients. Often, you can get by with only a few. But the more complete the recipe, the more powerful the apology.  Don’t bring a knife to a gun apology.

Apologies can:

  • Build trust
  • Repair relationships
  • Accelerate the pace of business
  • Demonstrate strength of character

An apology is not:

  • A sign of weakness
  • A miracle cure
  • A time to make demands

So, I’ll leave you with this. An apology is an offering. It’s an offering of reconciliation to another, and of strength and integrity to yourself. It is not a time or opportunity to make demands. Even, “Please forgive me,” is a demand. “I hope you can forgive me,” is better.

Try one today. Make a call. Write a letter. Tell me how it goes.

(ABC covered Chip Wilson’s failed apology – watch here)



High-Performance Accountability Culture: Imagine your team operating with high-level EQ. Trouble is, reading an article doesn’t often change behavior. That’s why we created Adeptability Training for your team for a communication and collaboration culture as a matter of habit and mindset. Want an Adeptable team?

Book a call today.

If Even Death is an Offer

Everything is an offer.

That’s a principle that we at The Yes Works teach.  An “offer,” in an improv context, is some bit of information provided to you for your creative use.  We can take creative inspiration from absolutely anything in our environment—from something someone says, from the tone with which they say it, or from a gesture someone makes, or the smallest subconscious movement, or a speck on the wall, or… even a disastrous event in the life of your company.

If everything is an offer—with the potential to spark a creative response—then the potential for innovation is everywhere.  A failed adhesive becomes a Post-it Note.  A failed ship’s instrument stabilization device becomes one of the most successful toys of all time (the Slinky). Last year, a drought at Stonehenge, in combination with a hose that wouldn’t reach, caused the grass, long kept green, to turn brown. While the groundskeeper may have been distraught, archaeologists answered one of the mysteries of Stonehenge. The first grass to turn brown formed spots that completed the circle of stones, indicating where fallen stones had once stood.  Was Stonehenge once a complete circle?  Yes, as revealed by the brown spots caused by this happy accident, it was.

In our lives and in our businesses, we can become paralyzed by failure or by crisis, or worse yet, we can struggle to oppose the inevitable, putting our finger in the dike when there’s not one leak, but twenty. When faced with insurmountable forces, we often ignore them.  Or we stand up to them like Oedipus defying the Oracle. Or we run away in hopes that we are faster than fate.

A dear friend of my family, Waylon Black, a vibrant, creative, caring doctor, beloved by family and coworkers (by everyone, really) learned not so long ago that he had cancer.  He fought it with fortitude and grace, and when he learned that it would surely take his life, Waylon took his impending death as an offer and an inspiration.  “I decided I was really going to live,” he told his voice teacher, my wife Jessica.

He surely had some private grief.  No doubt Waylon mourned with his family.  But he was not defeated by this turn of fate, not diminished by facing the inevitable. If advancing death was a crisis in his life, it was not a crisis first or foremost.  It was an opportunity to celebrate.  And he did celebrate.

He took voice lessons, singing in his church choir and singing American Standards he’d expanded with countermelodies he wrote.  He danced.  He threw holiday parties.  He enjoyed his grandchildren.  “Really live,” he did.

He celebrated not only in the small moments and the holidays of his remaining time, but even in his coming demise. And it was a source of inspiration to him.

Viewing crisis as a gift—as an offer, as a source of inspiration—is a skill, and one that is cultivated and enhanced by a regular practice of improv. That’s a different approach to crisis management.

A creative and inspired fellow in every avenue of his life, Waylon set about creating the mausoleum that would be his final resting place (and when she’s ready, that of his wife, Marlene).  This was no macabre endeavor for Waylon.  He did not darkly face the task, reluctantly choosing from a catalogue.  Instead, he excitedly designed the look of the giant stone monolith he would rest in, making drawings, choosing materials, drafting and editing.  The granite walls and pillars will one day hold not only Waylon and Marlene, but also a bronze statue of the two of them doing one of the things they most loved to do together, dance.  He showed friends and family his designs and plans, smiling and joking and proud of his work.  He strode into his voice lesson one day and said to my wife, grinning, “look at this picture of my mausoleum!”

And, surely, inevitably, he came to inhabit the mausoleum he’d worked so hard to create.  I don’t know if it brings him joy now, as he rests there, but I do know that it brought him joy when he was making it, in his final days.  He planned for the mausoleum to be a gift.  “I hope that others who visit the cemetery will enjoy it too.”  To insure that they would, he even added a bench a few yards away.

I’m reminded of my friend, Steve Roberts.  He says that everything is a gift.  “Everything.”  And he claims that his poster of Noah joyfully waterskiing behind the Ark (drawn by Jeff Moores) is more valuable than the Mona Lisa. This illustration, Steve says, “Encourages us to ask ourselves, ‘What will it take for me to thrive in the face of adversity?’”

Viewing crisis as a gift—as an offer, as a source of inspiration—is a skill, and one that is cultivated and enhanced by a regular practice of improv. Deliberate exercise of improv, of- its mindset and principles, creates neural pathways that make a healthy response to crisis easier.  That’s one way that Waylon’s intention that his mausoleum be a gift to others is a success—its very existence reminds me to enjoy my many blessings, and that everything is an offer of inspiration for me to respond to with creativity and joy.  That’s why we, at The Yes Works, offer support in crisis surfing, rather than crisis management.  A crisis is not simply something to manage or to mitigate.  It’s something to enjoy and take gifts from.

If even death is an offer, an opportunity for creativity and innovation, then imagine the possibilities for your business in the next crisis you’ll face.  May you face a whopper soon, and may you face it as Waylon faced cancer—with grace, aplomb, creativity, collaboration, and joy.