Rules for Constructive Conflict

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Influence, Management


You’ve worked with them: The team member who drops the ball, acts selfishly, doesn’t take responsibility for their own actions, or loses their cool. In an increasingly collaborative workplace, you have to be able to work with them anyway. Sure, you could find another job, but then you’re just as unable to cope with the next difficult teammate. You need to learn how to handle them, how to have that difficult conversation in a constructive way.

A lot of us didn’t learn much about fighting fair on our mother’s knee. Constructive conflict is a skill we develop in adulthood, if at all. Yet shaming, blaming, shunning, and retribution – or caving in – rarely get us what we want. The answer isn’t in nuclear war, or walking away.

What works for true problem solving and conflict resolution, especially after you’ve decided your teammate is an incompetent, disrespectful, irresponsible, conniving, self-centered, clueless dirtbag?

Control your emotions. You’re hardwired for strong emotional reactions to perceived threats. A flood of adrenaline and cascading neurotransmitters grips you. Biology compels you into fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Here’s what you may not realize: That’s only true for 90 seconds. After that, your internal dialogue and the stories you tell yourself determine whether you continue down that same track or choose something different.

Changing life-long patterns takes time, but practice three things consistently and eventually you’ll find yourself in a different place. First notice what’s happening. The simple act of self-awareness, placing your attention with your observer rather than with the out of control lunatic in your head stops the runaway emotional train. Second breathe. Your breath is one of the few biological functions under both voluntary and involuntary control. Deep, slow breathing is physically incompatible with the fight, flight, freeze reaction, creating a calmer state of mind. Third, pause. The old saw about counting to 10 is good practical advice, except you should be counting to, well, 90. You’re waiting out that initial reaction driven by adrenaline and cortisol.

Forget about winning.  Too often an argument becomes a zero-sum game, winner takes all. The problem with this approach is that the other person is probably not very sanguine about “losing.” You’ve just created an opponent to be annihilated instead of a potential collaborator to be won over. Unless you’re looking for a win/win solution, you might win the battle but you’ll lose the war.

Forget about who’s to blame. Similarly, it’s rarely useful to blame the other for what’s happened, or for being the source of the conflict. Count on it, if you try to understand events from their point of view, they think you started it and it’s all your fault. Instead, constructive conflict requires you to:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. In any conflict, all either of you know for certain are the facts of what happened. You have only your assumptions and judgments of the other person’s intentions, and of how they interpreted your words and actions. It’s likely the two of you see the facts very differently, and misinterpret one another’s intentions and perceptions. Really listen to what your teammate has to say, without interrupting, defending, or explaining yourself. This may be difficult if they are playing the blame game and fighting to win, but let them vent.

Attack the problem, not the person. When you present your side of the story, stick with the facts as you understand them. Keep your tone of voice and your language neutral. It’s OK (and useful) to tell them how you feel, but watch your wording. Avoid “You make me…” like the plague, because it isn’t true. They don’t make you angry, or anything else. You do that to yourself. Instead, tell them “When you (fact), I feel (emotion).” Or “When you (fact), I think (interpretation).”

Assume they deserve your respect, even if you can’t imagine why in the moment. If you enter the conversation with the predetermined conclusion that the other person is an incompetent, disrespectful, irresponsible, conniving, self-centered, clueless dirtbag, your choice of words, tone of voice, and body language will surely convey that. You may think their behavior is reprehensible, but we’ve all done things we regret. They may need help if there’s mental illness, alcohol, or drug addiction involved, and some behavior can’t be excused. Nevertheless, expect that the other person is capable of better. They are.

Focus on the desired outcome. What would you prefer had happened instead? What kind of relationship do you wish for with this person? It isn’t enough to critique what went wrong. If you state what you want, you are much more likely to get it. Focusing on desired results also helps keep you from descending into a scorched-earth attack, even if they don’t reciprocate. Similarly, express genuine interest in what the other person wants, and creating a meeting place between their desires and your own.

Detach from the result. All you can control are your own thoughts, emotions, and behavior. That’s it. What the other person does is up to them. Act impeccably and let go of the outcome, which is not up to you.

If you want a sounding board for managing a difficult business relationship, contact me to discuss how I can help.

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E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Rules for Constructive Conflict