I’ve run several team-building workshops recently. One topic that often comes up is how to deal with conflict, both within the team and between teams.

Conflict Triggers and our Values

When conflict blows up “out of nowhere” and escalates quickly, it is usually because someone’s values have been infringed. We refer to “hitting a nerve” or “pressing a hot button”. When are our values are called into question, we feel threatened and react emotionally with the fight or flight response. The more primitive part of the brain (the amygdala and limbic system) kicks in first before the more rational part (the pre-frontal cortex) can give a more considered response.

There are trigger points for conflict between people based on their values. We have a deep attachment to what we value most. When someone else behaves in a way that appears to challenge or attack what we think is important, this can trigger an emotional reaction. We experience it as a threat to our self-worth and our emotions kick in.

For example, if one of my values is being reliable, I am likely to react defensively if someone appears to suggest that I am not reliable. Similarly, if I have a high need to be competent, I will feel threatened when people point out things that I could have done better. This reaction to our values being questioned can also make receiving feedback difficult.

People value very distinct and different things. We need to tread carefully around people’s values as we can inadvertently strike at the very heart of who they believe they are, their sense of self and identity.

The key to avoiding conflict is to avoid triggering negative emotions by appearing to question people’s core values.

Find out more about your own core values and motivators in Motivation: The Ultimate Guide to Leading Your Team.

Conflict Response and Personality

How we handle conflict is influenced by our personality style. When conflict occurs, people tend to react in different ways, depending on how assertive or co-operative they naturally tend to be.

Some people are more likely to fight back, others are more likely to avoid the conflict, or give in to the other person, or find a compromise, or seek a solution that meets everyone’s needs – see diagram, based on the Thomas-Kilmann conflict inventory. This shows which response is most common for each personality style.

For more insight into your own response to conflict, and how to manage conflict better, see How to Get On with Anyone.

Tips for handling conflict

The key to handling conflict is to balance assertiveness with co-operation, and to follow the CREDIT principles outlined below.

Check out this table for top tips for each personality style.

Interaction Style In conflict tends to.. Top tip when handling conflict
Mobilisers Compete Control your urgency to get things done, slow down and listen to others.
Synthesisers Accommodate Don’t give in – be more assertive and advocate your position more strongly
Energisers Compromise Avoid creating a frantic atmosphere – be calm and let others speak
Navigators Avoid Speak up for your view and ask questions to explore what others want

Here are some tips for to all personality styles:

  • Repeat the other person’s point of view in your own words, asking questions to clarify their position if needed. This acknowledges the other person, checks you have heard correctly, and gives you time to think.
  • Pause after paraphrasing before you state your point of view. Use ‘and’ not ‘but’ to bridge to your point of view – ‘but’ negates what has gone before while ‘and’ puts the two points of view alongside instead of opposite to each other (compare the impact of replying ‘Yes, but…’ with ‘Yes, and…’).
  • Avoid ‘never’ and ‘always’ when you are describing someone else’s behaviour, as this is likely to lead to an emotional reaction and escalation of conflict. It is also factually unlikely that they never or always do something.
  • Avoid ‘should’ and ‘ought’ as most people don’t like being told what to do.
  • Avoid phrases like ‘with respect’ and ‘I hear what you say, but…’ as these are big red flags that you are about to disagree with them.
  • Whenever you can find common ground make it clear that you agree.
  • Don’t state objections – instead, ask for clarification, seek ideas and make suggestions.
  • Switch from the past or present tense to the future – what are we going to do, how can we stop this happening again? This helps to take anger out of the disagreement.
  • Consider the problem from their perspective – put yourself in their shoes, rather than sticking firmly in your own.

Check out this newspaper article for how to persuade people.

The CREDIT Principles for Managing Conflict

When we conflict with other people, we tend not to give them credit for the good intentions that might underlie the negative impact they are having on us. But when our own behaviour has a negative impact on others, we give ourselves credit for our good intentions even when we have had a negative impact. “I didn’t mean it that way….”. Ideally it should be the other way around.

The CREDIT framework describes the key strategies to reduce conflict and misunderstandings. Next time you are in conflict, keep these principles and approaches top of mind:

C – Collaboration
Have a collaborative mindset. Look for win-wins, rather than win-lose outcomes, it’s not a competition! Look for common ground and make it clear that you agree. Consider the problem from their perspective – put yourself in their shoes, rather than sticking firmly in your own.
R – Respect
People are particularly sensitive to what they regard as a “lack of respect” . When you communicate with people, bear in mind that we all have deep seated needs to feel that we matter, are respected and are liked. So even during conflict, treat them as if they are important to you and you want to get on with them.
E – Emotions
Rather than letting your “inner chimp” take over, make time to allow the rational part of your brain to kick in. Relax your body, breathe deeply, pause before you speak, use a calm tone of voice and measured body language. If you can, move to a different location – while you are walking, you and the other person will have chance to reflect – or suggest a time out.
D – Drives
Be aware of what is driving your behaviour as well as your underpinning values. For example, someone who has a strong need for a plan can become stressed when they don’t know what is going to happen (perhaps when colleagues rush ahead with no plan or throw in too many ideas). This triggers their negative emotions, they may come across as pedantic and rigid and their behaviour has a negative impact on others. can help themselves by asking for time to think and being open to new ideas. Their colleagues can help them by slowing down and staying focused.
I – Intention, Impact and Influence
There is often an influence gap between what we intend by our words and actions and the impact it has on the other person. This is magnified during conflict because the emotions we experience are communicated in our tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. People react to the messages we transmit and situations can quickly escalate from a minor disagreement to a major argument. During any communication, and especially during conflict, ask yourself whether the impact of your behaviour is helping you have the impact and influence you want.
T – Tomorrow
Switch from the past or present tense to the future – what are we going to do, how can we stop this happening again? Remember that you will have to carry on working with the person after this conflict is resolved – what can you do or say now, that will help to build a better relationship with them for the future?

Like this blog?

Find out more about your own values and patterns of behaviour, in Motivation: The Ultimate Guide to Leading Your Team
Discover how to behave in more emotionally intelligent ways in How to Get On with Anyone.

Learn more about conflict and collaboration.