The Professional Woman's Guide to Conflict Management

By Elinor Robin, PhD
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  1. All About Conflict

About this book

A practical handbook that uncovers the hidden dynamics of the workplace and teaches how to successfully manage conflicts.

This practical guide will explore every aspect of workplace conflicts, from learning how to identify problems to deescalating and managing many different types of conflict and people. Develop your management style by discovering effective apology making, gain confidence as you apply your newfound negotiation toolbox to any situation. With self-assessment tools, action plans and key tips, this book is everything to need to expand your arsenal of conflict management, improving relationships and collaborations by studying these real-life scenarios.

Publication date:
October 2014


Chapter 1. All About Conflict

Each of us views every aspect of life from a unique perspective. Your perspective is shaped by the distinct combination of your experiences, cultural makeup, personality factors, and needs. Our conflicts are the inevitable and natural reflections of these constantly evolving differences.

Pause for just a moment and search your memory bank. Can you remember a time when a conflict at work resulted in greater understanding? When conflicts are managed well, they can provide a forum for a healthy voicing of concerns. Have you experienced a time when dialogue brought you or your co-workers towards a clarification of roles, a pathway to draw upon collective wisdom, a means to discover new options, or a plan for a better way to do things?

Hopefully, you have had one of these experiences. Sadly, however, you may be much more familiar with mismanaged conflicts. When conflicts are mismanaged, they can erupt into violence or slowly snowball, as egos and emotions aggrivate the original irritant beyond recognition. This book was written so you can have more positive conflict experiences and fewer negative ones.

Conflicts play out in our lives in two distinct ways. Sometimes, we are involved as a party in a dispute. Other times, we are drawn into a conflict as a third person who plays the role of advisor, comforter, or mediator to one or both of the people involved. Ultimately, at some point in your professional career, it is likely that you will find yourself in both of these roles. The latter is especially applicable if you supervise others and are aware of your staff members' quarrels.

This chapter will provide you with the knowledge you need to manage the conflicts you face as a party in conflict. You will also learn what you need to know about conflicts so that you can better manage the disputes that you encounter as an outsider or third person looking in.

Managing conflict is a cyclical process that requires constant practice. The more experience you gain in addressing conflict, the more adept you will become at untangling and decoding the conflicts you face. At the end of this section, you will view conflict through a different lens. You will understand the following:

  • How inconsistent or divergent expectations cause conflict

  • How the fight-or-flight survival response influences our conflict behaviors

  • How to calm lower brain reactions and move towards reason and reasonableness

  • How we perform the roles of victim, hero, and villain in our conflicts

  • How to avoid escalating the conflicts you face


What is conflict?

What is conflict? There is no clear consensus among the experts. We all know conflict when we see it, but it's not easy to define. Sometimes we hear talk of conflict being about limited resources. However, people who know how to work together can usually find ways to distribute their resources without engaging in destructive conflict. Fundamentalists (of any kind) would have us believe that conflict is the result (or symptom) of insurmountable differences in values and beliefs. This idea is misleading. In most cases, people can overcome significant differences when they are willing to engage in a mature dialogue.


Make a note

Conflict is best defined as "the by-product of inconsistent or incompatible perceptions and expectations regarding what is, what could be, or what should be."

Frequently, even the hint of inconsistent or incompatible expectations unconsciously translates to mean that the person on the other side is somehow being dismissive or disrespectful. Like a tinderbox, the sense of being dismissed, discounted, disrespected, or devalued, which is present in almost every human conflict, leaves us vulnerable to an emotional explosion. Knowing this will help you find and define the "dis" that points to a conflict's true germ or starting point, even when the people involved cover it up with anger or monetary claims.

Case study

Marvin told me this story of a conflict during a workplace training session:

"Our office recently experienced a significant coffee conflict. We have a coffee club. Staffers who want to participate and drink the coffee are asked to make a monthly $5 donation to cover the cost of supplies. When it became common knowledge that one of the workers, Dorothy, was drinking coffee but not contributing, another staff member, Kelly, turned on the elderly Dorothy like a rabid dog. Kelly's anger did not fit Dorothy's crime. As the supervisor, I offered to make the contribution for Dorothy so that everyone could put this behind them and get back to work. That only made things worse. The office became divided, polarized along generational lines. Ultimately, Kelly was able to move beyond the $5 distraction and present me with a long list of incidents where Dorothy's behavior had upset her. While each occurrence on the list had left Kelly feeling dismissed, discounted, or disrespected, she had said nothing until the coffee skirmish. This was the first time that Kelly could place an actual dollar amount on Dorothy's grumpy demeanor. The $5 became the symbol for all of the times Dorothy had behaved in a way that Kelly interpreted as Dorothy positioning herself above having to follow the rules."

Ultimately, when Dorothy's position was revealed, it became apparent that she had consistently interpreted her younger coworkers' attitudes as devaluing of her skill set and institutional memory. In this case, as in most cases of workplace conflict, there were two sides to the story. Until we know the rest of the story, we don't really have the full picture. When you are a third party—like Marvin in this case—avoid jumping to conclusions based on one person's side of the story.

Expectations are typically the outcome of one-sided secret deals we cook up in our own heads and hearts. These unspoken expectations almost always create disappointments. Kelly had expectations for how she wanted Dorothy to behave towards her. Dorothy did not share these expectations. She saw Kelly as a sassy know-it-all and responded to her accordingly. You may have already learned that "expectation is the root of all heartache. "(This quote is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare; the exact origin is actually unknown.) So, a key strategy for productive conflict management is moving expectations out of the shadows. When we are able to clarify the differences between our realities and our expectations, we can deal with disappointments before they sprout off into destructive conflict.

Each time we engage in conflict, three separate forces come into play. They are as follows:

  • First, specific physiological changes happen within our brains and our bodies

  • Next, each person in conflict takes actions (employs behaviors) to defend him or herself from some perceived threat

  • Finally, the reactions and responses of the two people involved create the interactive dance of conflict that they engage in together

In the next three sections, we will look at each of these forces more closely.


Conflict physiology and the brain

If you expect one thing, and your coworker expects something else, chances are each of you will come to assume that your individual needs are not going to be met. When this happens, instinctively, you are each pushed into a fight-or-flight survival response. The part of your brain called the reptilian brain becomes activated. As you kick into high emotional gear, another part of the brain, your limbic system starts producing adrenaline and other powerful hormones. The reptilian brain and the limbic system are stronger and more automatic than your cerebral cortex, the thinking (or reasoning) part of the human brain. As the limbic system rushes hormones through your body, you intuitively move into defense mode. A desire for blood, vengeance, or validation may be evoked. Alternatively, you may want to rush and hide under the bed. Either way, physical symptoms such as a rapid increase in heart rate and blood pressure, excessive or shallow breathing, sweating, and trembling may become evident.


Make a note

Until you can bring your physiology under control, your ability to negotiate, reason, and empathize is reduced.

This physiological fight-or-flight response may have served our prehistoric ancestors as they ran from wild animals or fought with neighboring tribes. However, it does not serve you well in the modern workplace. Without a sense of safety, it is likely you will react to perceived threats in this primordial way; it's programmed into your biochemistry. STOP!! This can be detrimental to your career.


Make a note

Don't do anything while your reptile brain is in charge!

How to calm your reptile brain

It is possible to calm your reptile brain and limbic system and move back into your cerebral cortex where you can reason and be reasonable. Mediator Stephen Kotev believes that we can train our bodies to more effectively manage the symptoms of the fight-or-flight response. He teaches body-awareness skills that are derived from the Japanese martial art of Aikido. For most of us, learning Aikido is not an option. However, there are some body-awareness techniques you can utilize when a perceived threat moves you out of your thinking brain. These include deep or focused breathing, reading your body, meditation or prayer, and journaling.

Deep or focused breathing

One of my favorite breathing techniques is heart-breathing. This method of focused breathing can help you relieve physiological symptoms in a matter of seconds.


Action Point

Focus your attention on the area around your heart and breathe into that space. Then, breathe out from your heart. As you slowly breathe into and through your heart, in your mind's eye, visualize something or someone that you are very grateful for. Hold this image as you take some additional breaths.

You will be amazed at the difference this can make in a very short time.

Reading your body


Action Point

Quietly sit or stand. Feel your feet firmly connecting to the ground beneath you. Beginning with this sense of grounded feet, slowly scan your body from the inside out. What sensations do you feel as you make a toe-to-head assessment? What hurts? Where is there tension? Try moving and stretching to loosen up the parts that are holding tension. If you are feeling strong emotions, it's often wise to simply sit and let the emotional energy pass through you.

Meditation or prayer

It has been said that prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening to God. Many people find one or both of these activities comforting.


Action Point

Even if you are not drawn to either prayer or meditation, you may still find it soothing to repeat a positive affirmation to yourself over and over again. My favorites are "I love and approve of myself" and "I am safe and all is well in my world."


Stream-of-consciousness writing is unstructured, unedited writing that explores your perceptions or feelings about a certain person, event, or situation.


Action Point

Just grab a pen and paper and start writing. Let it all out. Hopefully, when you are done, you will experience a sense of clarity or cleansing relief. Most of the time, it is best to keep this writing private. If you decide to share with a trusted confidant, make sure they understand and are in agreement regarding the level of confidentiality that you expect.

These techniques will not work unless you practice them. The time to practice is not when you are in the throes of a fight-or-flight reactive response. Instead, experiment and find the calming activity that works best for you when there is no perceived threat. Frequent practicing will make moving into your activity easier when your reptile brain and limbic system get fired up and start pushing you into survival (also known as lunatic) mode.


The victim, hero, villain dance

A workplace conflict can become a strange variation of musical chairs. Instead of changing chairs, the two players move between three roles: an evil doer, a beautiful victim princess, and a noble rescuer prince.

The victim

In this fairy tale triangle of villain, victim, and hero, the victim is under attack, powerless and inclined to withdraw. When we play the victim, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. After all, as an innocent person, the conflict is not our fault. Rather than meeting the situation head-on, we justify inaction by telling ourselves that the other person is the villain and needs to change or be stopped.

The hero

Sometimes, we shift into the hero mode to protect ourselves, defend our interests, and even the score. It's a role full of courage, selflessness, and the dramatic seeking of justice. Of course, the darker side is that as heroes, we can become self-righteous, manipulative, and controlling. Bringing in the hero usually heightens the conflict.

The villain

While we have no difficulty pointing to the villain when we find ourselves in conflict, ironically, the villain usually views himself as the victim in the conflict, and like us, conjures up his own hero to fight back.

This concept may be easier to understand if you think in terms of good and evil. When I am in conflict, I see myself as good and my adversary as evil. On the other side, my adversary sees themselves as good and me as evil. Each one of us strikes out in order to protect ourselves and annihilate the evil perpetrator on the other side. In truth, none of us are one sided. Simplistic, black-and-white worlds and characters fit in fairy tales but not in a complex real-life setting. In fact, the old adage, "it takes two to tango" holds very true when it comes to conflict.


The conflict action plan

Here are the conflict tips and truths you need to know to round out your conflict education.

Conflict truths

The closer we are, the more likely we will rub against one another

The more we rub, the more likely combustion will occur. Years ago, my husband, David, committed an atrocity, and I was furiously angry. (Right now, amazingly, I don't remember what he did, and for the sake of my sanity, I won't work too hard to recall the memory.) Anyway, after a long drawn-out discussion, I wanted him to promise that he would never do THAT (whatever it was) again. He said he would do his best, but while he was committed to making all efforts not to repeat this particular offense, he was sure that he would otherwise hurt or disappoint me again. He was right. How could it be otherwise? People who are close to one another, physically or emotionally, are much more likely to bump into and rub up against each other. Someone who is just a bit player in your life doesn't really have the ability to devastate you. However, those people who are closely connected to your career, which involves professional identity (the way you see yourself), professional reputation (the way others see you), and income, as well as the people you really care about in your personal life, do. So, even little slights, when they come from a primary player, can be excruciatingly painful.

Spot it, you got it

Frequently, psychological forces are operating beneath the surface of a given conflict. The process of projection may be used to explain the dynamics in some conflicts. Projection is a method of emotional self-preservation that allows us to place or project our own unacceptable, threatening, or repressed attributes, thoughts, motives, and emotions onto someone else. We then start to believe that these things are accurate. An example of projection is the woman who has secret fears of being incompetent. She buries and denies her fears and then concludes that her boss is incompetent.

What, how, and ouch – the three categories of conflicts

There are three different ways conflict plays out in our lives. The three categories of conflict are as follows:

  • Task conflicts, which are debates over what we should do

  • Process conflicts, which stem from the question of how we do the task at hand

  • Relationship or personality conflicts, which tend to be power struggles fueled by emotional and ego-driven blowups

Task and process conflicts can be very productive as they are rooted in finding best practices. These are the conflicts that are opportunities to expand perspectives and investigate new options. Warning! Task and process conflicts, when ignored for too long, can be misinterpreted and inflamed. The end result is that they can become destructive relationship conflicts, full of suspicion and competition.

Relationship conflicts (the proverbial personality clash) revolve around personal attacks that seem to pop up on their own. Parties embroiled in relationship conflict will often engage in mean-spirited behaviors aimed at fulfilling individual agendas or discrediting the other party, who is designated as "the enemy." When faced with a relationship conflict, your first task is to stop the situation from escalating further.

We all need a mediator – sometimes

Early in this chapter I explained that conflicts play out in two ways. Sometimes we are the main characters in a conflict and sometimes we are drawn into someone else's conflict as a third party supporter. I wish I could honestly tell you that after reading this book, you will be able to manage all of your own conflicts, avoid dangerous emotional triggers, and never get your buttons pushed again. However, if I said that, I would be lying. On the other hand, I can tell you that a third person who is brave enough to intervene in someone else's conflict can bring about miraculous results. When a willing mediator is able to create a safe environment, emotional triggers can lose their charge. As the mediator gently pushes people in conflict away from emotional mayhem and into rational thinking, magic happens. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be both a mediator and a participant in a conflict. So, please share this book with a friend. We can—we must—act as each other's mediators.

Conflict tips

1. Avoid escalating the conflict

The following are some things that can escalate conflict and should be avoided:

  • Losing your temper

  • Overreacting

  • Aggressive gestures

  • Assuming that the problems will go away

  • Waiting too long to step in

  • Spending a lot of time trying to attach blame (faultfinding is looking backward; resolution requires moving forward)

  • Treating warring parties like children

  • Forcing apologies

  • Dealing with private matters in public

  • Using bully tactics

  • Asking someone to compromise something that is really important, just to be a good sport (unwilling agreements often carry resentments that can cause more trouble later on)

  • Expecting to find a flawless solution

  • Reacting out of fear and anger

2. Be proactive, not reactive

Address conflict in a timely manner, before it becomes systemic. Denying that conflict exists or failing to respond to it promptly can be costly. Unresolved issues tend to fester and grow out of proportion. When a conflict cannot be immediately addressed, set a time and place for the meeting.

3. Listen to the whole story, without interrupting or making judgments

Often, people simply want someone to hear what they have to say.

When stories are inconsistent and/or the cause of the conflict is undeterminable, at the appropriate time, suggest wiping the slate clean and starting anew by putting the incident in the past.

4. Keep your cool

Uncontrolled emotions can harm your image, no matter how much you are provoked.

5. Say what you mean, but say it positively

Words and tone can convey powerful positive and negative images. Saying "How can I help you?" rather than "What do you want?" may be all it takes to stop a conflict from escalating. Realize that the way something is said is at least as important as what is said.

6. Encourage a team approach to problem solving

In some companies, a team approach may require a complete culture change.

7. Respect the other person's point of view

Even if you disagree with it, avoid belittling what someone else believes.

8. Be aware of cultural issues

Ask for explanations of cultural issues. It's okay to admit that you want or need clarification. Confront cultural discrimination in the workplace. Do not tolerate or go along with ethnic jokes or ridiculing.

9. Give feedback

A common problem with difficult behavior is that the person is unaware that their behavior is causing a problem. By giving timely feedback about specific behaviors, misunderstandings can sometimes be avoided and expectations clarified. A useful formula to give feedback that deals with both emotions and facts is using "I-Statements." For example:

"I feel frustrated when I am interrupted at our team meetings. It breaks my train of thought, and I struggle getting started again. I need time to finish with what I am saying. It would help me if we spoke one at a time and waited for each other to finish."

Notice that this feedback formula is a four-part process that includes the following:



The "I feel" statement

The cause of my feeling

The impact on me

A request for resolution



When you have time to sit and reflect, answer the following questions:

  • How comfortable are you with the emotion-driven energy that lurks under most human conflicts?

  • How comfortable are you with the venting that may have to happen before a conflict can be resolved?


Make a note

Think back, for just a moment, to the last time you found yourself embroiled in conflict. Can you still feel the physical sensations? Is the anger or rage still there, simmering? Much of the time, these feelings are just floating on the surface. Remember, you are safe. Allow the anger to move through you. Once it passes, are you able to identify a sense of feeling dismissed, discounted, disenfranchised, or disrespected? Keep in mind that the person on the other side may not have intended to trigger this sense of being devalued in you. If they did, it is likely it was in response to your triggering the same thing in them. Is there anything you need to do now in regard to this conflict?


Action steps

Consider a current unresolved conflict. Does it serve you well to work on getting this conflict resolved? What are your other options? Is it possible to reduce the level of contact or the number of interactions you have with the person on the other side? Is walking away or cutting off communications a viable option? What are the costs involved in ending this relationship? When you are clear, you can choose to follow these action points:


Action Point

Focus on figuring out what happened to make the other person perceive your actions as devaluing them. Can you determine why the other side feels dismissed, discounted, disenfranchised, disrespected, or disappointed? If you need help with this, consider switching roles and writing a letter to yourself as if you were the person on the other side.

Think about what the other person did to trigger this feeling in you. Define the "dissed" feeling that is fueling the conflict. Dismissed. Discounted. Disenfranchised. Disrespected. Disappointed.

Armed with this information, approach the conflict as an opportunity to improve your relationship, lessen tension, and eliminate any long-standing problems. If you feel confident that the person on the other side will be receptive to shining light onto the situation, you may decide to share your assessment with them. The goal will be to show them that your conflict is like a ping-pong game with the two of you sending the ball (represented by negatively perceived actions and communications) back and forth.

Once the conflict has been decoded—in that you are clear about how you co-created this mess—you will be able to treat the conflict as a natural part of the relationship. Once the core cause of the conflict has been exposed, you can move into brainstorming (tossing around ideas) and problem solving until a solution is reached and effective communication has been re-established.



At this point, you are on the road to quickly becoming a conflict expert. You now understand a lot about conflict dynamics, including the following:

  • What conflict is, and how conflict plays out in our interpersonal relationships

  • The physiological factors that drive our conflicts

  • How you can calm your body and save yourself from conflict drama

In the next chapter, you will learn about the key issues that have the potential to cause significant workplace conflict, and how to keep them from damaging your career.

About the Author

  • Elinor Robin, PhD

    Elinor Robin, PhD, is a mediator and mediation trainer whose mission is to help men and women discover better ways to look at, respond to, and overcome their professional and personal conflicts. With wit, wisdom, and passion, Elinor brings her clients and students the benefit of her revolutionary spirit, vision, small business expertise, and extensive court system experience. She has mediated thousands of disputes and has developed a powerful method for analyzing and resolving the conflicts that we face within our families, workplaces, and communities. As a mediation trainer, Elinor goes beyond information sharing, engaging her audiences with candor and compassion. Her innovative training programs have prepared over 12,000 professional mediators to handle the conflicts they regularly face. To learn more about Elinor and how her 25 years of research and practical experience can help you, visit

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