There is a public art statue on the boardwalk downtown of a man and a women kissing with the Puget Sound in the background.  I love that statue. The two look like they are so connected and happy.  But I know that if we could listen in on their morning conversation it would go something like “who’s turn is it to take the dogs out?” or “why can’t you pick up after yourself?”  I know that even though people look happy on the outside, they are normal people with normal challenges and things don’t always go right in their world.

Conflict skills are essential to effective communication.  Since conflict is a normal part of any relationship, it’s important to learn how to handle conflict well on a daily basis. When conflict is not handled well, it can harm the relationship or lead to more (and bigger) problems.

So first, start with this:

Ask yourself, Do I need to have this conversation?

Sometimes we want to resolve a conflict that doesn’t really matter, or that we have waited too long to address. It’s important to do some pre-work to make sure you are having the right conversation at the right time.

Think of a conversation that you think may need to happen. Write down your answers to the following questions – be honest with yourself:

  • What do I really want to get from this conversation?
  • What results am I trying to achieve?
  • Why?
  • What relationship do I want to have with this person?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen as a result of this conversation?
  • What’s the best thing that could happen?

If you decide you need to have the conversation, commit to handling it well by following these steps:

1) Stop, breath, and think.

Successful conflict resolution depends on your ability to manage your stress, control your emotions, and be aware of your non-verbal communication.

Take a couple of deep breaths to control your tension, and then think about exactly what you need to do and say next.

2) Acknowledge the conflict.

Say something like: “I’m sensing that there are some issues between the two of us that we need to talk through” or “I’m feeling that I might have done something to upset you. Can we talk about it?”

3) Use your active listening skills.

Don’t interrupt, defend or convince. Be mindful of your non-verbal communication.  Stay positive and listen to their side of the story first. Say things like, “Tell me more.” Wait until they are finished before you talk.

4) Deal directly with the issue, not the person.

Focus on the actions and behaviors, not the person. Don’t blame the person. Describe the actions or behavior that caused the conflict. Describe what specifically happened (or didn’t happen).

5) Use this script I call Describe the Gap:

  • Here is what I was expecting.
  • Here is what happened.
  • Let’s talk about the gap.

For example:

We agreed that you would begin taking calls at 8:00 am.

This week you have been 10 minutes late each day.

Let’s talk about why that is happening and what we can do about it.

6) Pause and check for understanding.

Say, “Do you understand what I mean?” and “Did I understand you correctly?

7) Make a plan.

As “What can we do differently?” Decide together what the next steps are that need to happen to resolve the conflict.

8 ) Stick with the plan.

Agree to the specific action and a date. Then remember to follow-up.

9) Notice the progress.

Give encouragement and comment on positive behavior changes, even small ones. Focus on the positive as much as you can. If things aren’t improving, go back to Step 1.  Try using different words, but giving the same message. Sometimes it will take more than one conversation to resolve an ongoing conflict. If you get stuck, try something different. 

Will this be easy? Of course not! However, that doesn’t change that although you can’t control what others do, you certainly can (and do) control your own behavior.

And, remember, whatever you do, be respectful regardless of how the other person responds.

Learning to deal with conversations that could become a conflict is a skill that you need courage and practice to master.


Betty Lochner is the Owner of Cornerstone Coaching & Training. She coaches small business managers on HR issues and provides training on workplace communication to organizational groups.

In addition, she hosts a twice-annual Women’s Summit that brings women together to learn how to become more confident communicators.

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