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Brain Circuits

The six steps to managing conflict

Published 11 July 2021 in Brain Circuits • 3 min read

Are you afraid of conflict? Many people are, but as a leader it is something you are going to have to deal with. The good news is, it is possible to rewire your brain so you can learn to face conflicts, solve them, and even enjoy the process.

Create and maintain a bond with your adversary.

Bonding diffuses conflict even in the most dramatic circumstances. You don’t have to like someone to form a bond with them. Hostage negotiators use this skill all the time. You simply have to find a common goal to work on whether you agree with or like the other person or not.

Establish a dialogue for conflict resolution.

Dialogue requires self-awareness and self-management. You can train yourself to use inner dialogue to see obstacles as opportunities. Athletes often do this before they compete. If you train your brain to view your adversary as an ally you can go towards them and establish a dialogue.

For a productive dialogue you must both talk and listen without hostility or aggression. Connect with the humanness of the other person and they will be influenced to enter a dialogue.

Put the “fish on the table”.

This is an expression that comes from Sicily where fishermen put their catch on a large table and do the dirty work of cleaning their fish together. Imagine if the fisherman didn’t all do their part to get this bloody, messy job done. A horribly foul stench would arise.

A similar thing happens at a workplace when colleagues aren’t willing to put their proverbial fish on the table and clean it up together. There’s no opportunity to sort things out for a mutually beneficial outcome. So even if it’s unappealing, do it and reap the rewards.

Keep in mind the cause of the conflict.

Often a disagreement arises from having different goals, interests or values. So not only do you need to understand your own perception, but make sure you are aware of the other parties’ perception. Explore the roots.

A helpful exercise is to ask if your conflict is stemming from an interest or a need. Interests are transitory and more superficial things such as land, money, job. Needs run deeper and include things such as identity, respect, or security. Sometimes conflicts appear to be about interests but are actually about needs. When you can get to the cause of what is really nagging at the other person you can begin to respond to that, rather than what they are saying,  in order to resolve the conflict.

Reciprocity works.

You should strive to master the technique of empathizing and managing how you express that empathy – both verbally and non-verbally. Once you have made a concession, it is likely that the other party will respond in kind – in other words, reciprocate. And when you recognize a concession has been made, reciprocate with one of your own to move the negotiation forward.

Nurture a positive relationship throughout the conflict.

If you can help the other party maintain feelings of acceptance, value and worth – all basic psychological needs – throughout a conflict negotiation, you will help them also to stay focused on the goal of a mutually acceptable outcome to the conflict. This is especially true when you don’t agree with a specific point or behavior, you need to still demonstrate your acceptance of them as a person.

These six points are all skills that can be learned and should be practiced. If you can master all six, it will take your leadership to the highest levels.


George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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