To Ease Conflict, See to Everyone’s Needs

Sometimes when people don’t get what they need, they fight.

Take Monique and Anil, cross functional peers in a global technology company. When Anil was hired, Monique thought he would report to her. But a month later Anil ended up working for her boss. This created a rift, partly because Monique was hoping for a promotion, and this shift made it less likely.

Worse, Anil and Monique didn’t like each other. Their styles were diametrically opposed: Monique was a big picture thinker who made fast decisions; Anil was extremely detail-oriented and believed in decisions based on “full data.” They were oil and water, their interactions became shorter, and tempers flared. They began to avoid each other completely.

If you faced a similar situation, how would you manage through conflict?

First, ask what your colleague needs

Try to figure out what they aren’t getting from you. What is it that they need? Open questions, which begin with “What…?” “How…?” or “Tell me about….” are great tools for this:

  • “What’s not working right now?”
  • “What could I do differently that might help?”
  • “How can I change my approach to help you meet your goals?”
  • “Tell me about your thoughts on making things better.”

If you’re too far down the road of conflict, this might feel hard to do. Here’s another approach: “I know we’ve had our problems. Is there something I could do to make things easier?” Or simply, “What feedback do you have for me?” Giving and receiving feedback is another great strategy for conflict.

To make sure you really hear them, practice your best active listening and summarize back what you heard. Confirm with them using words like: “I just want to make sure I’m understanding, what you really need from me is X, Y and Z. Those are the most important things. Is that right?” 

If you can, be empathetic and not mechanical. Ask, “What else?” Make eye contact, nod, be curious and not judgmental. Let them get it all out. Here you’re not negotiating or responding, but listening and understanding. If you jump in too quickly with your needs the conversation may be derailed.

What do you need from them?

Consider your own needs as well. And specifically, look at how your needs are related. Sometimes the answer is for you to help each other.

After some discussion Monique told Anil he was too hands-on with her org. He interacted too much with her direct reports and got into the weeds with them, slowing them down. She wanted Anil to back off.

As he reflected, Anil realized why: Monique never made time for their meetings, which she often cancelled at the last-minute. She also couldn’t give him the details he needed because that was not her strength. Working with her team was his only option.

In their next conversation, Anil negotiated.

“Monique, I’ve thought about what you said, and I realize that I have a lot of contact with your team for a couple reasons. First, I need some project details and timelines that I don’t think you’re tracking. Another way for me to get those would be for you to copy me on your meeting minutes. The other thing is, our weekly 1-1s usually get cancelled. If we can agree to prioritize our 1-1s, that would help me back off your team.”

This strategy recognizes a basic truth: that to meet one person’s needs in a relationship, the other person’s needs have to be considered. If Monique has been honest about her needs, Anil is simply providing some reasonable conditions for meeting them.

Look to shared goals

Sometimes talking through a conflict doesn’t get you anywhere, even with the best of intentions. If that happens to you, try pivoting away from the disagreements and towards shared business goals. This can help you get unstuck.

Here’s Monique:

“Anil, I know you and I haven’t always gotten along. But one thing we have in common, we both want to build a better culture here. Maybe we can just focus for a while on one or two things we can both agree will help achieve that.”

Nobody likes conflict. This is hard stuff. But, if put into practice, these relatively simple strategies can help move things in a positive direction.