The Keys to Managing Conflict

One of the classes I teach on behalf of The Professional Development Center at the University of Texas at Austin is on conflict management.

There is an exercise that we do in the class… everyone splits into small groups to discuss a case study in which a manager and his employee no longer like each other due to a previously unresolved issue over work schedules. The employee thinks the manager is “out to get him” and the manager thinks the Unhappy Manageremployee is lazy. Before long, the employee does, in fact, start acting as if he is lazy and uncaring, and the manager actually begins to act as if he’s out to get the employee. The original reason for their conflict is all but forgotten, and now respect has totally dissolved between the two.

After the groups finish discussing this case study, they come back to the class at-large to share their findings. We talk about issues like… How would they define the conflict based on what we’ve learned so far? What was the cause of the conflict and what could have been done to resolve it? They are also asked how they think the personalized conflict can be resolved.

Inevitably, each group easily concludes that if the manager and the employee had resolved the initial conflict over hours in a reasonable way, things wouldn’t have gotten out of hand. Yep, that’s the logical approach alright. Yet we wonder if could they resolve it now? Maybe. But that would require the two parties to have enough respect left for each other to sit down at the table and discuss the initial issue… and that they would even remember the initial issue at all.

We discuss how this scenario might conclude in real life. Some in the class think that the manager would or should fire the employee. Some speculate that, perhaps, the employee would quit. These are both realistic probabilities. Many managers and employees in real situations such as this do, indeed, end their relationship and, therefore, avoid resolving the conflict rather than take steps to resolve it non-emotionally. Heck, many friends, family members and spouses handle conflict this way, too.

During the lecture part of the class, I stress that the main key to effective conflict management is awareness. Awareness comes up in several ways. I emphasize the importance of being aware of your own preferred style when it comes to conflict; being aware that there are many approaches available to you other than the one you prefer when you’re in a conflict situation; and that having awareness of the other person’s style and point of view is paramount, too.

“But how can you get two people who don’t like each other to sit down and talk?” is an important question that someone in the class will ask at this point. Yes, that is the dilemma, isn’t it? One way the two parties could do this is to try to recognize something they have in common. Maybe that would be a common desire for a resolution or a common desire that the business operations succeed. Maybe it’s the desire of the employee to keep his job and the desire of the manager to not have to start from scratch to hire and train someone else.

Those are certainly good places to start. But there’s another level of awareness that most find challenging to see until it’s pointed out plainly. And it’s far more subtle than figuring out commonality, which might or might not work.

What if the employee and/or the manager practiced two tenants of the wisdom taught by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book, The Four Agreements, “Don’t take things personally” and “Don’t make assumptions”? Ruiz says that adopting these approaches in human interaction will change your life. I know that the efforts I have made to use them have certainly changed mine!

So, let’s say that the employee and/or the manager use these approaches. If the employee started to feel as though the manager was coming down on him like a ton of bricks, he might pause to ask himself, “This manager and I used to get along. What has changed?” To do this would take a distinctive lack of attachment to the emotions of “he doesn’t like me.”

Likewise, when the manager started to think the employee was lazy, he might ask himself, “What this employee is doing needs to change, but I’m not going to take this personally, nor will I make assumptions. I wonder what’s going on with him?” As you can see, this requires emotional detachment, but it also presumes that the manager doesn’t dislike the employee but, rather, dislikes the employee’s behavior.

If just one of them did this, the other might then begin to feel heard and respected. Then a dialogue under more ideal conditions might follow. Intriguing scenario, AND it’s very possible. I’ve personally tried it, and it works.

Sometimes it takes patience to get there. Often, it takes a moment of humility and putting aside a self-righteously charged ego to look at things objectively. Usually, it requires recognizing that there is another angle – another’s point of view in the mix – and making the decision to find out what that is. Stephen Covey thought this last aspect to be so important that he listed it as one of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Awareness is the main key to managing conflict… just as it is the main key to so many other facets of the human experience. And its supporting cast is respect, willingness and a certain level of detached curiosity.


Angela Loëb helps people rediscover and use their gifts so they can bring who they are to what they do. To learn more, please visit:


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