• Terry Dockery


Two members of the senior leadership team glared at each other across the conference table. “You’re always late for staff meetings,” one snarled. ”You’re lazy and you’re not a team player.”

“Well, if never matters anyhow,” the other retorted with contempt. “The meetings are always boring and a waste of time.” The other team members either looked down at the table or shook their heads in disbelief and thought to themselves, “Can’t these two find some way to communicate better? This is killing our teamwork and productivity.”

As I’ve said many times in many parts of this great nation, if there are two or more people in a room, there is no possible way they can agree on everything. If you think about it, it is statistically impossible. Given the inevitable variability in human experiences, differences of opinion and therefore conflicts are bound to occur (married people typically nod knowingly at this point).

If we assume two people are on the same team, then we can also assume it is in both their best interests to work out conflicts to improve teamwork and productivity. That is, it is in their best interests to work out a win-win solution. Most often conflicts are based on miscommunication and misinterpretation rather than on true unbridgeable differences in values. Here are some techniques that can be helpful when working through conflicts. A tip of the hat goes to David Burns, MD, who teaches some of these techniques in his workshops.


Technique#1: Avoid labeling, name calling, and all-or-nothing statements. Note the use of “always,” “never,” and “lazy” in our example above. These polarize any conversation into a black/white or I’m okay/you’re not okay affair without any room for finding middle ground and agreement. Technique #2: Use the BARB approach. Talk about a specific Behavior, tell how it Affects you (“I feel” statements rather than “you are…”), Request alternative behavior, and explain the Benefits of the new approach to the person’s best interests. “When you are late to our staff meetings, it is frustrating and disruptive because we have to catch you up on everything you’ve missed. If you would be willing to be on time, I think you would find that the whole team’s trust and goodwill toward you would improve significantly. That goodwill can be a real asset down the road when you need cooperation from the other folks on the team.”

Technique #3: Repeat what the other person has said before you respond. This way you can turn a potential “showdown” into a “slowdown.” It is useful to slow down all verbal exchanges to minimize the possibility of a negative emotional “spin up” that can occur through a rapid-fire exchange of misunderstandings and defensive reactions to them.

Technique #4: Empathize with the other person’s thoughts and feelings. When you are repeating what the other person has said, be sure that he/she knows that you have heard what they think and how they feel. “John, I heard you say that you find my chronic lateness to be frustrating and disruptive to team productivity and that you think it would be to my advantage if I were to make the effort to be on time. Is that correct?”

Technique #5: “Disarm” a hostile attack. If someone attacks you with an accusation that seems entirely false at the time, it’s difficult not to respond with a reactive defense of yourself. This of course puts the other person on the attack with greater ferocity so he/she can “prove” the correctness of his/her position. What if you agreed with them instead? “Sally, I know you are a reasonable person so there must be some truth in your assertion that the staff meetings are boring and a waste of time. Can you please tell me more about what you’re seeing?” This gives the other person a chance to elaborate on his/her concerns so you can uncover the potential misunderstanding in the situation (or learn a valuable lesson). This falls under the “seek first to understand before seeking to be understood” maxim.

Remember, most conflict is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding rather than on true differences in core values between people. So the next time you are tempted to refer to others as, oh, let’s say, “an axis of evil,” perhaps instead you can use some of the techniques above to build greater mutual understanding, trust, and teamwork.

Copyright Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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