Dealing with Conflict

In an ongoing conflict, at least one person (usually both) feels disrespected or perceives they have been disrespected:


No matter what else people in conflict say they want, they both want to be respected.

When people feel heard, they feel respected. They need to know they’ve been heard. Heard and understood. (Understood does not mean ‘agreed with’.)

The most important thing you can do in a conflict (where safety isn’t an issue) is to listen, let the other person know you have heard them and understood them. This is also one of the hardest things to do.

The other most important thing is how you talk with them. Use an “I” message when you are upset. (Focus on saying how I feel, how it has affected me, what I would like to have happen, etc. Do not accuse, put down, or criticize the other person by saying things like, “You never…”, “You are irresponsible…”, etc. That will simply make them defensive or upset and they probably won’t hear what you’re saying.)

In mediation, people have an opportunity to be heard.

A Difficult Conversations Checklist

Adapted from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

Step 1: Begin With Self-Reflection

  1. Sort out What Happened.
    • Where do your perceptions come from (past experiences, expectations, information, rumors, rules, etc.)?
      Where do their perceptions come from?
    • What impact has this situation had on you? What do you think their intentions were?
    • What have you each done that has contributed to the problem or the current situation?
  2. Understand Your Emotions.
    • Explore your emotions about the person or the situation. (You’re tense, afraid, angry, insulted, anxious, can’t think straight, etc.)
    • Identify similar people or situations from your past and any feelings or thoughts associated with them.
    • Notice any similar feelings or thoughts you have with this person or in this situation.
  3. Get Clear
    • What’s important about this situation, from your point of view? What are your concerns? What’s at stake, for you?
    • What would you want the other person to understand? What do you want to have happen?
    • Further self-reflection: Reflect on how this is related to your own personal history and patterns.

Step 2: Check Your Purposes and Decide Whether to Raise the Issue

  1. Purposes: What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation? Can you have your intention be to have a conversation that supports both of you learning more about the situation, you sharing what you want to share about the situation, and joint problem-solving?
  2. Deciding: What is the best way to address your concerns and achieve your purposes? Do you want to communicate the issues and concerns directly? Would it be worthwhile to do more self-reflection or personal work first? Do you want to confide in a colleague, advisor, or higher-up to brainstorm? Is this a personal issue or a policy issue? Can you affect the problem by changing your own communication and actions? If you decide not to raise the issue, what can you do to help yourself ‘let go’ of it? [If you hold on, your emotions will still be triggered and your health might be affected.]

Step 3: Initiate the Conversation.

  1. Describe the problem as the difference between your stories: you have different perspectives, expectations, etc. Include both viewpoints as legitimate parts of the discussion.
  2. Share your purposes. If you have common or compatible goals or concerns, mention them.
  3. Invite them to join you as a partner in sorting out the situation together.

Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours Together.

  1. Listen to understand their perspective on what happened. Ask questions. Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations. Paraphrase to see if you’ve got it. Try to understand how the two of you got to this point.
  2. Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings.
  3. Reframe, reframe, reframe to keep on track. Move the focus from self-righteousness (“I’m right”) to understanding perceptions (“I want to make sure I understand your perspective, and I’d like to share my perspective.”); from blame (“This is your fault.”) to contribution (“I’m sure I’ve contributed to the problem; I think we both have. Rather than focus on whose fault this is, I’d like to look at how we got here and where we’d like to go from here.”); from accusations (“You blew it.”) to intent and the desired impact (“I think we both would like to work things out and get the project done well and on-time.”); and from judgment or characterizations (“I’m not sure you can handle this.”) to expressing your own feelings and concerns and listening to others’ concerns. (“I’m concerned that this gets done and in the mail on time. What do you think it will take to do that?”). Be persistent.

Step 5. Problem-solving

  1. Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests. You may invent a new procedure that works better than the usual way.
  2. You can also look to standards for what should happen. [Standards could include procedures, job descriptions, organizational policies, and laws.] Keep in mind the standard of mutual care taking; relationships that always go one way rarely last.
  3. Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward.
  4. When people feel like they can communicate about difficult things or problems safely, they waste no time in bringing them up and resolving them.

Mediation: It’s your solution.