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Five Rules for Engaging in Conflict


We’re all familiar with the advice “Choose your battles wisely.” But when is the right time to stand up for something and when is the right time to stand down? It’s not always easy to know. Confrontation has consequences. But so, too, does avoidance.

We can’t take on every problem in the workplace. Every leader has a finite amount of social and political capital. Even when an issue is critical, strategy consultants say our reputations will suffer if we confront two issues at once.

In perusing the rule book for engagement, first consider if the consequences will be long lasting. Tiny things can create big fallout. Second, remember that words are tricky. Words don’t always match what we mean. Finally, find your line of conflict. Is the situation so distressing it has to be addressed? Or is it really small potatoes in the big scheme of things? There’s a line between being a good problem solver and being Debbie Downer.

Forethought leads to better communication. Kneejerk reactions create messes that take time to clean up. Before engaging in a conflict, consider five rules:

1. Calculate the price of winning. Rate the importance of a problem on a scale of 1 to 10. If it’s a 6 or below, it’s likely not worth a confrontation. Upon reflection, winning is often not as important as it originally seemed.
2. Stay out if the other party is fighting just because he or she loves it. Some people are skilled debaters. They love to argue. If the other person gets worked up no matter who he or she is speaking to, put down the gloves. If you enter the ring with a scorpion, you’ll be stung.
3. Fight for the right reasons. Any discussion should focus on improving an undesirable situation. If the purpose is to get “payback” or express anger, you’re fighting for the wrong reason. Emotional conflicts are losing battles. Although you might win on the immediate issue, you may lose in terms of the relationship.
4. Have solutions ready. It’s not a good practice to point out problems without a few solutions. Gather ideas from others in the organization before raising an issue. Leaders who are fast to critique but slow to fix can lose momentum—and respect—quickly.
5. Practice makes perfect. Learning to deal with those who challenge decisions takes practice. Practice what you want to say before you say it. Talk to trusted colleagues first to get their reaction.

Understanding the motives of others as well as our own motives is essential when deciding which battles are or aren’t worth fighting. Good leaders are aware of what’s minor and what’s fundamental to their mission. Use these tips as your starting point. And remember to breathe before you speak.

Gallo, A. (2013, October). How to pick our battles at work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Thought for the Week

Resistance and disruption are predictable if students fail to see the need for the expectations presented to them and their emotional needs go unaddressed.

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