Dealing with conflict-the space between

the space between

Dealing with conflict

By Trevor Bentley and Howard Boorman

Conflict is just about inevitable in any workplace. Where conflict is seen as stemming from different ideas and viewpoints it can be very useful, leading to creativity and innovation. However, conflict is usually seen as a difficulty between people and frequently gets in the way.


As a leader the conflict you may need to deal with may be between yourself and someone else or between others.


If the conflict is between you and someone else it’s important to recognise that all situations between two people are, at least to some extent, co-created and that shifting your viewpoint or position may be enough to help the other person shift theirs so that any conflict can be dealt with usefully.


Difficult relationships


The following extract from Sue Clayton’s book, Simply People1, may be useful:


Our lack of understanding of difference, and misassumptions about each other can lead to all sorts of difficulties. These entanglements and conflict that arise from these difficulties can be daunting.


Resolving difficult relationships takes energy, thought and self reflection. I try to take the view that ‘it isn’t the person that is difficult, it is the relationship that’s difficult’, which means that I am also contributing to this difficulty and I need to understand what I do that adds to the difficulty.


In these situations I usually discover that I have not fully understood the other person and neither have I been understood by them.


This can happen for a number of reasons:

  • our differences do not allow us to have any degree of empathy with each other’s position
  • we are seeking commonality on opposing issues rather than valuing difference on our diverse viewpoints (or we are not looking for a third option!)
  • our differences (beliefs, values, viewpoints) are not being mutually respected.


Resolving difficulties usually isn’t about seeking similarity or acknowledging difference, it is about finding a dynamic balance between the two.


All relationships have some degree of difficulty. The difficulty in relationships provides us with an opportunity to develop and refine our own behaviour, to see our imperfections, and to fine tune our relationship skills.


Conflict also provides us with a wonderful opportunity to build stronger relationships, if we are prepared to deal with the consequences of our actions, especially the unintended consequences.

Working with unintended consequences


Generally people tend to avoid taking action if they fear the outcome might be unpleasant, or not what they want. In other words we hold back for fear of the consequences. If this fear can be lessened or removed it releases us to be more daring and adventurous in our disclosures and interventions.

We’ve identified three steps in working with unintended consequences

  • acceptance,
  • responding from the heart, and
  • moving on

Acceptance involves accepting the consequence that has occurred rather than trying to deny it or justify or explain it.

It is real, especially to those affected, regardless of what you might say.

At this point it’s really important to avoid:

  • justifying yourself or your action
  • blaming others
  • avoiding responsibility 

Just accept that it has happened and that what they are experiencing is real and true for them.


Responding from the heart is about sharing what’s going on for you, especially what you’re feeling about having caused this consequence. Trust your thoughts and feelings and express them as simple clear statements, e.g., ‘I am sorry this has happened. It isn’t what I intended.’


Moving on doesn’t mean dwelling on the consequences or trying to explain what occurred, but looking for ways to move forward. The more you analyse and process what happened the deeper you can dig the hole for yourself to disappear into.


Consequences are a golden opportunity to build good relationships and to increase your confidence and competence in working with others. However, don’t try to artificially engineer consequences as it will be transparent to others that you’re ‘playing games’ or attempting to manipulate them.


In addition to working with the consequences when you think you’ve done something ‘wrong’ or inappropriate (or even when it doesn’t seem that way from your perspective but appears to be the case from the other person’s perspective), you can choose to treat it as a ‘miss-take’ (rather than a ‘mistake’) and you can have another go (‘Take 2’), or ask the other person to ‘correct’ you.


Rupture and repair


Sometimes what we do, or the extent of our difference, is simply too much for others and we may rupture our relationship. This should be seen as a temporary situation and when the moment is right we can move into repair mode.


It takes courage and perseverance to repair ruptured relationships and yet when the effort is made and the healing takes place the relationship can rise to a new as yet un-reached level.


Here’s an example from Trevor Bentley’s book A Touch of Magic2


I had not intended to get into an argument with the plumber. I had clearly said something which he objected to and he had seemingly taken offence and marched out of my half-finished bathroom. I reached him on his mobile:


          "Tom it’s Trevor. I’ sorry if I have offended you. I didn’t intend to and I want you to know that I am very pleased with the work so far and I am keen for you to finish it."

          "Well I have promised to do some work for another customer tomorrow, but I can come to you on Monday," Tom replied just a little frostily.

          "OK that will be fine, I’ll see you on Monday."


Monday came and Tom arrived:


          "So do you want me to move the sink or not?" he said abruptly.

          "What do you think?" I asked him.

          "Well as I said last week I think it would be much better moved to the side of the shower," he said pointing to a particular position.

          "OK well let’s do that," I said.

          I noticed Tom smiled and his tone softened as he said, "Right well I’ll get stuck in then."


In this example, for their relationship to move forward, it was not necessary for Trevor to know what he’d done ‘wrong’, only to accept that something he had said had apparently upset Tom – to take ownership of that and be open to moving on.

Managing conflict

Regardless of whether the conflict is between you and another or between other people, the following process can be very useful when dealing with conflict between two people (here identified as A and B):

1. Set the ground rules, e.g. timeframes, confidentiality, owning what we say (i.e. using “I” statements), no interruptions. Both A and B should be encouraged to make reference to assumptions, expectations and interpretations they’re making.
2. A talks for the agreed time describing what it’s like for them in the situation. B listens (and makes notes if they want to).
3. B then seeks clarification of anything A has said that mightn’t have been fully understood. B says how listening to A has left them feeling (there is no “made” here; throughout the process, and especially at points like this, it’s vital that people stick to “I” statements such as, “When you said that, I felt X.”)
4. A & B then swap talking and listening positions and can repeat the process as often as seen to be useful.
5. When both A and B have heard each other and clarified misunderstandings, each person states how they would like to progress coming to an agreement. (This is often not needed as the work has been done already!) If necessary, a date can be set to meet to review progress.

If you are operating as a supporter in this process, your role is to:

  • hold each person to the groundrules
  • encourage openness about thoughts, feelings and responses
  • recognise, draw out and draw attention to expectations, assumptions and interpretations
  • challenge personal attacks and judgments


1 Clayton, S., Simply People, the space between publishing, 2001

2 Bentley, T., A Touch of Magic (in the business world), the space between publishing, 2002