A conversation pattern for turning bad conflict into good conflict

leadership mindset techniques

Few of us enjoy having a tense stand off in a meeting. It's exhausting. It slows work down. It makes teams perform poorly.

But here's the thing.

Conflict comes in two flavours

There are two types of conflict - one type we want and another that we we don’t.

We want task conflict which is focused on the work, not the person. When smart people who trust each other disagree, great things happen.

We do not want relationship conflict which is focused on the person but often is masquerading as the focusing on the task. 

Relationship conflict undermines relationships. It can be active or passive. Silence and lack of response can also create relationship conflict.

  |  “Tension without trust is toxic” (Paul Russell - Even If It Was Free) (1)

Here is a conversation pattern for turning relationship conflict into task conflict in a meeting.

Use this whether you are in direct conflict yourself or leading a meeting where relationship conflict is surfacing. 


First - a conversation with yourself in the moment.

Something bubbles up in a meeting you're running. It comes to a head with a moment between two people. It's heading into relationship conflict territory rapidly. You want to leap in.

Stop for one moment and disentangle yourself from the drama.

Here's what I do.

First, I remind myself: "My picture of what’s going on is incomplete. I only know what I observe. I can’t know what anyone else is thinking and what they intended. That’s in their script not mine." (2)


I’m not getting into who I think is right and who is wrong.

I’m not judging who is being fair and who isn’t.

I’m not trying to diagnose out what’s actually going on here.

I’m not interested in defending, fixing, advising or siding.  

None of that is in my script - for this meeting.

What’s in MY script today is to hold a boundary - a safe, strong space in which everyone can contribute.

I'm going to go ahead and assume the highest intention from everyone. Of all the intentions they could have, I'm picking the best and assuming it's that one. 


Now, let's go there 

Ok, back to the meeting. I've taken myself out of the drama, as best I can. What I'm going to do next is pretty straightforward.

I'm simply going to invite each person involved to replay the conversation, taking their focus OFF the person and placing it back ON the task. I'm assuming that's what their best self intended anyway.

There are a few ways to do this, but it's usually a variation on these two sentences.

Sentence 1

First, I’m going to re-iterate the purpose of the session and the behaviours we’re looking for. For example, I might say:

“Today, we are looking at the pros and cons of X, so what’s most valuable is Y”

or I might say:

”It’s really important that we understand X so everyone’s perspective is important today”

or I might say

“As we evaluate what we might do next, we will focus on the evidence today.”

Sentence 1 gives everyone a mini-reset. This is the task we’re focusing on. This is the behaviour we need. I’m simply pointing out what we already agreed when we planned this meeting / this team (you did create agreement, right? 🙂).

Sentence 2

Next, I’m just going to reinvite people to state their point but this time, in service of the task and within a range of acceptable behaviour. I'm going to draw them back to neutral facts and give them a clear invitation to refocus on the task - and encourage them to say EXACTLY what they think about the task. So we are closing the door to relationship conflict but flinging it wide, wide open to task conflict.

"Ash, can you describe the criteria you think we should be using to make this decision? Feel free to go all out on detail."

"Mandeep, can you give us a crystal clear summary of what we need to understand about your view on X?"

"Jen, so we can design a better report, tell us everything you would like to be able to with the information we send you each month? Give us your full wish list."

See how disarming it is to fling the door wide open?


More sentence 2 - drawing everyone else back to task conflict

I might need to then use sentence 2 to bring the other side of the debate in back into the task conflict space as well.

"Amy, how would you refine what Ash has just listed out with your experience of Y?"

"Jules, go ahead and do the same as Mandeep. Make us absolutely crystal clear on your view of Z."

"Team, with your expertise in data reporting, how best can we best help Jen achieve her goals?"


If that isn't quite enough...

If sentences 1 and 2 don't work immediately, I'm just going to keep coming back to variations of sentence 2 until we get to the contribution we need. 


If all that is nowhere NEAR enough...

There will be situations where this conversation pattern just isn't enough. Tensions are too great, patterns of behaviour are too engrained, the stakes are too high.

And for that, I have a short bundle on handling really challenging behaviour patterns in meetings. It’s a practical field guide for everyone who leads meetings with difficult or powerful people and needs something a bit more radical. You can request this through the contact form here.


References and further reading 

  1. Paul Russell's book: Even If It Was Free is a very thought-provoking read, full of war stories of collaboration for innovation. 
  2. This is from Corrina Gordon-Barnes brilliant relationship work using The Work by Byron Katie - a method of inquiry which you can try for yourself here




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