Resolving Conflicts with Straight Talk

Resolving Conflicts with Straight Talk

In our research, we’ve found an epidemic of unresolved conflict inside modern organizations.

Much of it can be traced back to poor communication. Straight talk can help. But it takes time – and it takes a commitment across the organization – to change people’s patterns of communicating.

One might wonder why people get into conflicts in the first place. People naturally gravitate to the outer rings of the Circle of Assumptions. This is especially the case when they’re under duress or feeling pressured.

As defenses go up, straight talk goes down.

So in a typical organization facing typical pressures, straight talk is more difficult. People will attack other people rather than challenge their own thinking. Under pressure, people move away from the data and into battle mode. The key is to recognize these signs and learn the tools to deal with the conflict – and prevent it going forward.

In this post, we’ll explore the types of communication conflicts that can arise in an organization – and how to deal with them. As we review each type, we’ll look at techniques that straight talk provides for resolving them. In the process, we’ll set the stage for a different kind of discourse.

Conflicts Over Ground Rules

Some conflicts are healthy, of course. A brainstorming meeting is more successful when two opposing camps emerge. A sales manager should be able to challenge her research manager. As long as the conversation stays focused on the facts and issues, a conflict is clearly okay.

One form of conflict arises because people have different notions of what is, and what is not, “healthy.” Some people think public shouting matches are acceptable. Others disagree. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. But an organization encourages conflict by failing to articulate clear standards.

Once an organization establishes that certain types of conflict are, in fact, “healthy and acceptable,” it can monitor itself and sanction people who violate the standards. Those three activities – defining, monitoring, and sanctioning – give the organization its moral rudder.

Related Post – The Eleven Ground Rules

Conflicts Over Style

Not surprisingly, each leadership style is prone to specific types of conflict. As you become skilled in straight talk, this is one of the easiest types of conflict to diagnose. Every discussion about what is, and is not, “healthy conflict” will be influenced by the styles of communication that prevail in the room.

The following chart shows how each style approaches conflict and responds to it, both in positive and negative ways:

“I realize we have different styles of communicating. But in the heat of the moment, that doesn’t seem to help. He reverts to his style, and I revert to mine.”

We need to acknowledge these differences openly at first, so that the conversation can begin with a clear recognition of individual preferences – and limitations. We need ground rules tailored to different styles. Most important is the need to accept that under pressure we are sure to get into conflicts. So we need to lay out the rules of engagement, the rules for “healthy conflicts.”

Here are several helpful ground rules to get you started:

  1. Prior to any sensitive discussion, we’ll remind ourselves of our styles.
  2. Any time we attack each other, it’s a violation of the ground rules.
  3. Anytime a ground-rule is violated, it’s our responsibility to talk about it.

Conflicts Over Purpose

Some conflicts stem from the failure to define the purpose of a conversation. When this happens, two people can have two very different expectations. This difference in expectations sits like a trap, waiting to spring at a moment’s notice.

Conversations are more productive when expectations are defined upfront. People feel more comfortable when they know their specific issues are going to be addressed. As a result, we recommend the following ground rule:

  1. We’ll agree on an agenda before we start talking.

Conflicts Over Assumptions

If two people fail to see the assumptions they’ve made, it’s easy for conflict to arise. When Jerry suggests going back to the client for more money, Bill thinks he’s crazy. He assumes there are no further resources available. Bill’s untested assumption allows the level of conflict between them to escalate.

By inquiring into each other’s views, and exposing the assumptions they’ve made, this conflict will disappear. Jerry and Bill could 1) agree to explore that assumption or 2) agree to assume there is no more money available. In either case, the conscious focus on assumptions would allow the communication to shift to the possible consequences of that assumption, rather than to who was right.

This results in an additional ground rule:

  1. We’ll make sure we balance our assertions with a thorough inquiry into our assumptions.

Conflicts Resulting From Ambiguity

This type of conflict arises because questions or issues have been deliberately left ambiguous. The rationale is that resolving the issue would result in more conflict than not resolving it.

Conflicts resulting from ambiguity – left to their own – inevitably give rise to deeper, more damaging conflicts. How to resolve this? Challenge the assumption that ambiguity is preferable. Compile a list of areas where policies are unclear or vague. Then have a discussion about it. Who knows? You might find yourself revising your assumptions.

3 Strategies for Responding to Conflict

In instances where conflict arises, you have three strategies to choose from. Choosing your strategy depends on how you read the room:

    1. Injecting Inquiry. The initial, and correct, response when a conflict occurs in a group is to listen, acknowledge the various points of view, and then inject inquiry to bring the conversation back toward the center of the Circle of Assumptions, back toward the data. At the same time, make sure people are focused on the same purpose. Is the goal of the conversation clear? Are other agenda items getting in the way? If so, inquire whether there are any undiscussables. If the pattern continues, consider talking to the people involved outside the room during a break. Ask them whether they have any issues that prevent them from participating in the conversation in a constructive manner.


    1. Highlighting. If the conflict surfaces again, your second option is to use the conflict to highlight the opposing points of view. You can say something like: “I notice that Dave and Sylvia are arguing with each other about this topic. Has anyone been influenced by their arguments? If not, why not?” Then lead the conversation to discuss the issue, using Dave and Sylvia’s competing perspectives to push for a richer appreciation of the underlying data missing from the conversation. This has a second purpose: To help Dave and Sylvia become aware of their pattern, and avoid it in the future.


  1. Focusing. If two people seem to be replaying the same dispute again and again, to the detriment of the group’s progress, someone needs to say: “I notice that Dave and Sylvia are having the same conversation again and again, and they’re disrupting the flow of our conversation. Why do you think this is happening?” Now you’ve shifted the focus to their behavior and have asked for feedback on its causes. “Focusing” is a more risky gambit. Basically, you’re putting the conversation “on pause” while you focus on personal feelings. People need to feel that they can be open about their feelings, and that requires certain chemistry in the room. One should thoroughly understand the dynamics of the group before “focusing.” Even then, you’ve got to be prepared for someone to say: “I’m not comfortable talking about this.”

Focusing on negative behaviors to resolve a conflict is difficult and risky. But it can be rewarding for all. When the sources of conflict get clarified, the parties involved tend to appreciate the chance to give feedback; and the conversation can proceed with heightened energy and enthusiasm.

Cycles of Conflict

When in conflict, different styles often react in dramatically different ways. They may show anger, aloofness, depression, or neediness. They may confront the conflict; they may avoid it. Yet these different reactions may all be in response to the same communication conflict. This can make the source of the conflict seem very puzzling and difficult to diagnose. By separating the responses, which vary, from the underlying conflict, which is the same, an individual or group can recognize the fundamental conflict and then break the cycle.

Psychologists talk about cycles of conflict for individuals. Groups and organizations pass through various stages when they are in conflict, too. Typically, the cycle includes:

  1. expectations
  2. letdown
  3. anger
  4. resentment
  5. avoidance

Not every individual or group passes through all five stages. Some will pass immediately from expectation to avoidance. But if the group can talk about what stage it’s in, it can help it break the cycle.


By learning how to modify your behavior in stressful situations, you show your desire to strive for a productive solution, rather than fan the fire. By using straight talk, you can cut short the otherwise exhausting cycles of expectation and anger, anticipation and letdown, and avoidance and resentment.

More importantly, conflicts need not continue beyond the useful point of underscoring differences in our styles, our opinions, our values, or our goals. It’s when we repress the differences, out of fear of the repercussions, that conflict begins. If everyone understands each other’s position, it’s far easier to go down the road to a productive conversation and reach effective agreements.

The following tool is designed to help you refine your style of managing conflict. It’s organized around each of the four basic styles. You can read about your style and how to better manage conflict with other styles. This is especially useful if you want to hone your management skills. Try to apply cases from your experience and envision how you could use these tools to improve the outcomes.

Download the PDF – Straight Talk Leadership Styles

Leading Resources, Inc. is a Sacramento Management Consulting firm that develops leaders and leading organizations. Subscribe to our leadership development newsletter to download the PDF – “The 6 Trust-Building Habits of Leaders” to learn more about how to build trust with your team.

Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas is the senior partner and founder of Leading Resources Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on developing high-performing organizations. For more than 20 years, Eric has successfully helped a wide array of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations achieve breakthroughs in performance. His new book The Leadership Equation helps leaders achieve strategic clarity, manage change effectively, and build a leadership culture.

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