Three Phases of Conflict…And How to Handle Them


How we handle conflict is absolutely hard-wired into us. Even when we achieve a level of awareness about that wiring that allows us to manage it more effectively, the base-line gut reaction to conflict is hard-wired. On one side of the spectrum, there are those for whom conflict is to be avoided. On the other end, conflict doesn’t even really register as something that’s problematic, but rather, is just a normal part of communication. In both cases, and for everyone in between, awareness of how you react to conflict is key to understanding how to manage those reactions to achieve the best possible outcome.

The three phases of conflict are simple:

  1. It’s brewing
  2. It’s happening
  3. It’s over

So what can you do in each phase to move through it and achieve the best possible outcome?

It’s brewing… This phase is often recognized but then promptly ignored. The signs are usually pretty clear—passive aggressive behavior, tension in the communication, avoidance, to name a few. Those who have no issue with conflict are the best at throwing the signals that it’s coming, while those who avoid conflict tend to try and hide them.

The key in this phase is to approach the other person in a calm way. Ask lots of questions to help you gain an understanding of their perspective. Make an effort to keep a lid on your own emotions and remain calm. Be clear in communicating your concerns about how a conflict might be brewing, and open about your interest in avoiding it if possible. If you catch the situation early enough, a great way to avoid it altogether is to establish some ground rules or up front agreements about how you want to work together.

It’s happening… Conflict can happen anyway. Avoiding the person(s) involved will prolong the situation. Because emotions tend to run a little hotter during conflict, seek to find a way to sit down with the other person in a neutral setting, and start with finding some common ground. Conflict often happens because two people have different ideas about reaching the same goal, so it can be helpful to acknowledge that common goal up front. From there, don’t be afraid to eat some humble pie if it’s called for, and admit you were wrong. Look for ways to reveal your own humanity and fallibility, rather than pointing fingers and putting the other person on the defensive. Most of all, be willing to truly listen with an open mind to what your colleague has to say.

It’s over… And everyone can heave a sigh of relief, but usually not until some sort of reconciliation has taken place. Be willing and available to sit down and talk. Not for the purposes of rehashing everything, but in order to apologize, accept an apology, and figure out how to move on. Something we don’t think happens nearly often enough is a conversation about what to do the next time an issue like this comes up (because it will). Take a few minutes to come to an agreement about how you’ll handle things next time. It kinda circles back to the last point we made under the first phase—make those up front agreements about how you want to engage with one another. The clearer those agreements are, the clearer your road map to successfully avoiding conflict will be.

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