Stop Workplace Conflicts

Workplaces today are stressful — tight deadlines, heavy workloads, high expectations of excellence combined with common realities of limited resources, inconsistent direction, team environments and interpersonal challenges. Conflict is inevitable.

While disruptions, creative differences and missed expectations are part of everyday work lives, it’s how conflict is dealt with that makes the difference between a healthy and dysfunctional workplace.

The pinch-crunch conflict model, developed by Jack Sherwood and John Glidewell, helps us understand the importance of resolving conflict while the issues are minor before they escalate into a full-blown feuds and battles. The model identifies the importance of sharing information and renegotiating expectations when pinches occur.

Too often, the reality is when we are “pinched” in the workplace, we fail to voice our concerns and choose to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves. We worry about rocking the boat or hurting others’ feelings or simply hope the behavior won’t continue.

In the meantime, the offending individual typically goes on offending, many times oblivious that their behavior has caused a problem.

Because the missed expectation has not been dealt with or communicated, the disappointing behavior continues and “pinches” accumulate. Frustration and resentment build, creating even more problems. Eventually these accumulated and unresolved pinches turn into “crunches,” full-blown, highly charged and potentially explosive situations resulting in managers asking, “How in the world did we get into this mess?”

Workplace crunches can end in explosive situations. Tensions, stakes and emotions have escalated. Unresolved crunches can result in lowered morale and performance, people giving up (resigned that the situation will never improve), hostile work environments and employee turnover.

It’s important to handle pinches before they turn into crunches. Waiting just makes them harder to resolve. If you find yourself in a workplace pinch, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Voice your concerns early, even over small disagreements, rather than waiting or avoiding addressing them.
  • Attempt to identify and address the real issue. Dig and be curious — you may have only the partial picture.
  • Focus on the problem behavior versus making it personal. Describe the behavior that you observed without your personal interpretations, judgments or assumptions.
  • Communicate your intentions, including the desire to improve your working relationship.
  • Negotiate expectations. Clarify and agree to each other’s role responsibilities.
  • Generate realistic options to meet established expectations.
  • Seek agreement on next steps.

Handling pinches effectively often results in increased trust, confidence and improved relationships. Workplace relationships and teams are strengthened when differences are dealt with successfully. Wise managers recognize that problems and conflict are a part of the workplace. They don’t assume that they won’t have any problems; they recognize it’s their job as a leader to deal with problems before they become disasters.

The challenge for managers is to create and maintain an environment that not only allows but encourages healthy conflict.

For this to be successful, they need to foster and support open dialogue and a process to allow pinches to be identified and resolved before turning into full-blown crunches.


These are common workplace “pinches”:

  • Unrealistic workplace expectations
  • Confusion over roles
  • Different standards for performance or behavior
  • Feeling unappreciated or taken for granted
  • Communication misunderstandings

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

Your Conflict Style -Learned At Early Age

Our ideas about how to influence and respond to authority are largely a result of what we learned as children through our family upbringing. As adults in the workplace, we tend to recreate and respond in the fashion we were taught in early childhood.

Recall a recent workplace conflict and the part you played — what did you do or say? Did you avoid, blame, yell or threaten, acquiesce, compromise or work out a win-win solution? Now compare this with the family “rules” around conflict you learned as a child. Most people can recognize that their workplace conflict pattern stems from their family of origin.

We bring these lessons and patterns with us into the workplace. The first group we ever belonged to was our family. Our parents were our first “bosses.” How we relate and respond to a workplace “boss” is largely habituated from our own parental experiences. Common struggles with workplace power and authority (asking for a raise or challenging your boss) are likely connected to early childhood “interpretations” and experiences with authority. For example, some grew up with the message that it was not OK to challenge authority, with strong parental messages like, “Do what I say,” or, “You can sit there all night until those peas are gone!” or, “Don’t argue with me!” As adults, they may be reticent to tell the boss bad news, ask for what they want, disagree or give challenging feedback. As children, they learned it wasn’t OK to challenge authority.

Most bosses (and businesses) would benefit greatly by hearing what’s really going on from people in their workplaces. Yet few get this kind of honest feedback. Bosses need to ask for feedback (and not shoot the messenger!) and work to establish trust with their people.

In terms of how we manage conflict, the truth is most of us go through life reacting unconsciously. To change how you manage conflict, you must first be aware of your patterns and tendencies.

In moments of anxiety, stress or fear, a highly automatic emotional reaction (triggered by the reptilian part of our brain) often overpowers rational thinking. Our brains release a hormone to signal danger (fight or flight). This served our ancestors well for survival in saber-tooth territory, but can be a hindrance in today’s workplace.

Additionally, our brains are “hard-wired” for how we react emotionally — our early childhood experiences determine how neural pathways are established. As adults, we react emotionally when something happens that causes these childhood neural pathways to “fire.” For example, if as a baby you experienced a parent as loud and frightening, you likely react with a conditioned fear response to a boss yelling. Perhaps you got the message as a child you were never “good enough;” then you may have intense reactions of sadness or anger when you hear disapproval in the workplace.

Have you ever been surprised at the intensity of someone’s reaction to something you said — “Whoa, where did that reaction come from?” The stronger the emotional reaction, the more likely their interpretation of the situation is coming from their past.

Most want to blame others for their reactions, as in, “You made me mad,” or, “He pushes my buttons.” The truth is, we push our own buttons. Nobody makes us feel anything.

Most of us react to words or behaviors of others that get under our skin. For the sake of future workplace relationships and your career, identify and learn to recognize your hot buttons.

The primary reason for career derailment is a lack of emotional intelligence. The good news: It is possible to rewire your brain’s neural firing patterns. The bad news: It isn’t easy. It takes great attention, support and practice to learn to rewire new behaviors.


  • Be aware of your emotional patterns.
  • Understand that we co-create what’s working and not working with others.
  • Identify what you are feeling (feelings inform you about the importance and meaning of a situation) and then choose your behavior. Recent brain-scan research indicates that naming your feeling when upset (either to yourself or out loud) can get you out of “lizard” mode and back into prefrontal cortex thinking mode (where your odds of successful resolution are greatly enhanced).
  • Get help — hire a coach or get training in conflict resolution and interpersonal practices.

Notice when you slip into your childhood emotional state, then choose to behave as a grownup.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

Unhealthy Conflict Hurts Workers and Business

Unresolved workplace conflict is stressful for participants, their bosses and everyone in close proximity. Yet conflict is a common workplace reality — as human beings we naturally have different values, points of view or ways of communicating.

Most of us don’t choose our co-workers (anymore than we choose our annoying relatives), yet success in today’s team environment requires us to find a way to resolve differences.

Let’s start by making the distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy debate on workplace teams often leads to better strategy and decisions and should be encouraged. Being accountable on a team may mean that others will challenge you to do a better job or follow through on a commitment — these are not reasons to head for the human resources department. Unhealthy conflict is very different — it interferes with people’s ability to do their work successfully and, in the extremes, involves harmful or abusive behaviors.

The challenge for most managers is knowing when and how to intervene. Avoiding it won’t solve anything. Unresolved conflict just festers and resurfaces. In extreme cases, managers need to draw a well-defined boundary and lay out consequences for unacceptable behaviors. Individuals who contribute to a hostile work environment must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. As the boss, it is your responsibility to establish an environment that enables your people to be successful. Any kind of negative escalating conflict that is disruptive to the work environment warrants an intervention.

Most successful interventions involve bringing the parties together with a mediator to discuss and commit to making the changes necessary to resolve the conflict.

Here are some intervention guidelines in resolving unhealthy conflict.

  • Start by establishing ground rules for acceptable behavior such as:

One person speak at a time. Speak for yourself and not for others. No personal attacks or put-downs.

  • Allow each an opportunity to share their stories so each understands the other’s experience. There are two sides to every story — none of us views the same event, interaction or situation in exactly the same way. Encourage both parties to identify what is theirs to “own” in the conflict (i.e., How did they contribute to the situation?)
  • Clarify job descriptions, roles and behavior expectations. Often the source of workplace conflict is overlapping or misunderstood roles or “turf.” Establish single-point (one-person) accountability for responsibilities, tasks and results. A common denominator for most workplace conflict is disagreement around “shared” expectations — some version of, “That is your responsibility, not mine,” or, “If you would only do your job!” This typical turf war is often the result of a gap between what one participant believes should be and what he or she perceives is being delivered (or not) by the other. Bosses often need to clarify turf and responsibilities to help close that gap. Get participants clear on whose responsibility is what by when.
  • Ask participants to identify what specific actions they would like from the other to resolve the disagreement. For example: “I would like responsibility for all client communication,” or, “I want Joe to submit his report to me by 5 p.m. each Friday.” A tip: Help them identify what they want more of, less of, stopped or started.
  • Create accountability for a plan to move forward. Participants should walk away with shared (preferably written) agreement about who will be responsible for what in the future. Plan to meet again to check on how things are working.

If you aren’t comfortable attempting this kind of mediation or if the conflict has gone on a long time and/or the stakes and emotions are high, it may be time to bring in someone like me as outside help — someone with conflict resolution expertise who can serve as an objective third party and with nothing vested in the outcome of the conflict. Outside experts are often successful where internal resources fail (human resources people are not often seen as being impartial) to bring real or sustained changes.

Expert facilitators, like me, can help:

  • Identify and clarify the “real” issues.
  • Regulate the conflict with a process that brings order and safety to participants.
  • Interrupt a frequently escalating cycle.
  • Help participants develop new and effective behaviors for handling differences moving forward.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

Conflict Thrives Without Clarity

Most workplace conflicts are the result of misunderstandings.

We all have a unique perspective. How we receive and interpret communication is a result of our mental models, beliefs, values, culture, religion, gender, life experiences, health — even whether we are having a good day.

Misunderstandings often occur as a result of how words and actions get filtered or “decoded” by the receiver. We hear (selectively) the words being spoken, appraise the tone and body language we observe and then instantly process that information and apply meaning to the message — all based on our personal experience and perception. It’s our interpretation of the message that determines how we react emotionally; no one makes us “feel” anything. Yet we often walk away from a misunderstanding blaming the other person for how he or she “made me feel.”

John Wallen astutely noted, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact.” Wallen’s practical “interpersonal gap” theory helps us recognize the great potential for misunderstandings. He describes the gap that often occurs in communication when the private intentions of a “sender” of a message don’t equal the result or “effect” of the communication on the “receiving” end of the message. In other words, the message I intended to convey is not what was received.

Many things influence interpretation — tone, words, facial expressions and our unique perception of the world. For example, a boss’s comment, “You weren’t at your desk this morning,” may have been intended to convey concern about your health yet might be interpreted as a nasty reminder about your tardiness or confirmation of your paranoia that the boss is out to get you. We often incorrectly ascribe “motives” around the other. Most conflicts are a result of that interpersonal gap.

How do we close the potential for interpersonal workplace gaps?

  • Provide clarity regarding your intention. What are you trying to accomplish? The more clearly you communicate your intentions, the better your odds of being understood.
  • Consider the potential for misunderstanding. Ask yourself, how could someone interpret this in a way that does not reflect my intention or the message I am trying to deliver?
  • Avoid sending double messages, and refrain from using sarcasm and passive aggression.
  • Don’t assume. We are often surprised by the reaction of someone to what we thought was a straightforward communication. A strong reaction often means there has been an interpersonal gap or misinterpretation. In such a case, you’d better work at closing the “gap.”
  • Don’t underestimate the “impact” factor. Both action and inaction have impact. A highly sensitive situation, poorly handled, can transform a small misunderstanding gap into a full-blown chasm.

What do you do when you are in an interpersonal gap?

  • Work it out quickly. Time is of the essence. If ignored, the gap grows.
  • De-escalate. Take a deep breath. Listen, paraphrase what you heard and acknowledge the other with empathy. Most people who believe they have been truly heard will calm down.
  • Don’t get personal. Instead, try to impartially roll the video and simply report what you heard and observed. Describe the behavior that leads you to your interpretation. Handling a challenge with just the facts instead of judgments will almost always have a better outcome.
  • Speak for yourself. Let the other know how you are affected by their message — including how you feel. “I’m angry to hear you call me unprofessional,” or, “I was hurt when you didn’t return my phone call.”
  • Verify your interpretations. Check in with the other to see if what you assume is correct. “By the tone of your voice, I’m guessing you are angry with me, am I right?”
  • Ask for clarification of anything that is unclear (particularly work instructions) or seems unreasonable (maybe you are just interpreting it wrong). Paraphrase your understanding of what was said.

For major problems, for example, your top performer is threatening to quit get an expert like me to help you.

One of the worst culprits for creating the potential for misunderstanding is our increasing dependency on e-mail, text, chat etc as our primary communication channel. There are no facial expressions or tone of voice to help the receiver interpret the message correctly — only words (many of which are loaded or inflammatory and may be interpreted in many different ways by the recipient). A good rule of thumb: If the message is sensitive or the potential to be misunderstood is great, relay your information face to face or by phone.

Bottom line — to clarify and work out misunderstandings, people need to talk directly to each other and work to close their “gaps.”

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: