Conflict, Collaboration and Career Success

The other day one of my career success coaching clients asked me a question about how to resolve conflict without always giving in.  That was a great question.  No matter how interpersonally competent, or how easy-going you are, you will inevitably find yourself in conflict.  It’s only human.  People will not always agree with you, and you will not always agree with others.

Tweet 133 in my career advice book Success Tweets says, “Resolve conflict positively.  Treat conflict as an opportunity to strengthen, not destroy, the relationships you’ve worked hard to build.”

There are no two ways about it.  Successful people resolve conflict in a positive manner.

I know a little bit about conflict resolution.  It was the topic of my dissertation at Harvard.  Way back in the 1970’s, Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed an instrument to measure a person’s tendencies when in a conflict situation.

They came up with five predominant conflict styles: Competing, Collaborating, Compromising, Accommodating and Avoiding.  Their research suggests that all five are appropriate depending on the situation.

As a career success coach however, I have found that the Collaborating style is the best default mode.  When you collaborate with others to resolve conflict, you focus on meeting both your needs and the needs of the other person.  I like this style because it helps you bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution.

When you collaborate, neither person is likely to feel as if he or she won or lost.  Also, collaborating with the person or persons with whom you are in conflict creates the opportunity for you to work together to build a solution that best addresses everyone’s concerns.  It’s a win-win.

When I work collaboratively with someone, I focus on our similarities, not our differences.  This creates a bond that not only helps us get through our conflict, but helps us strengthen our relationship, and strong relationships lead to career success.

As I mentioned in the paragraph above, my favorite method for dealing with conflict is counter-intuitive.  By definition, conflict is a state of disagreement.  When I’m in conflict with someone, however, instead of focusing on where we disagree, I focus on where we agree.

This is a great way to not only resolve conflict positively, it helps strengthen relationships.  And, as we all know, conflict often leads to a deterioration of relationships.  So to me this approach is a no-brainer.  First, you get to resolve conflict positively.  Second, you strengthen your relationships.  Third, you improve your chances of becoming a life and career success.

I look for any small point of agreement and then try to build on it.  I find that it is easier to reach a larger agreement when I build from a point of small agreement, rather than attempting to tear down the other person’s points with which I don’t agree.

Most people don’t do this.  They get caught up in proving their point.  They hold on to it more strongly when someone else attacks it.  If you turn around the discussion and say, “Let’s focus where we agree, and see if we can build something from there,” you are making the situation less personal.  Now the two of you are working together to figure out a mutually agreeable solution to your disagreement.  You’re not tearing down one another’s arguments just to get your way.  Try this.  It works.

When you come together with the people with whom you are in conflict by identifying some small point on which you agree, you are putting yourself in the position to begin building a resolution to the conflict – one that is likely better than either side’s opening position.  And, by working together, you’ll be strengthening your relationship.  This will facilitate even more effective conflict resolution down the road.  Look for common ground.  When you find it, build on it.  You’ll find that this is a great way to resolve conflict in a manner that enhances, not destroys relationships.

On the matter of not giving in — my best career advice is to be assertive, not aggressive in resolving conflict.  Here’s a true story.  Frontier flight 862, Denver to Phoenix.  I get on late because I’m on standby for an earlier flight.  I have a middle seat, 14B.  When I arrive at row 14, there are women sitting in seats A and C.  I say hello, stow my bags, and get into my seat.

The woman in 14A smiles at me, looks at the book I have in my hand, and says, “That looks like an interesting book.”  I’m reading Laura Lowell’s book, 42 rules of Marketing.  We chat a minute about the book and then lapse into some general conversation.

Her name is Cheryl Munsey, and as it turns out, Cheryl and I know a few people in common.  And she’s very personable.  We chat the whole time the plane is taxiing and through take-off.

As soon as the plane is in the air, the woman in 14C rings the flight attendant call button.  The flight attendant comes on the loudspeaker and says, “We are still in our ascent.  Will the person who rang his or her call button turn it off until we reach our cruising altitude?  Leave it on only if it’s a real emergency.”

14C leaves the light on.  I’m worried that she might be ill.  The flight attendant struggles down the aisle.  When she arrives at our row, 14C says, “I need a pair of headphones.  These people are talking too much and driving me crazy.”  As she is saying this, she is removing ear plugs.

I feel bad.  I tend to speak softly in crowded, enclosed places like airplanes and was surprised that our conversation was annoying her – especially when she was wearing ear plugs.  I say to 14C, “I apologize if we were annoying you.  I didn’t realize we were speaking so loudly.”  She says, “I was trying to sleep,” and puts on the headphones that she got from the flight attendant.

Not a minute later, she rings the call button again.  When the flight attendant comes back, she says, “I need another pair.  These earphones aren’t drowning out these people.”  I thought this was kind of peculiar, as Cheryl and I were stunned by what happened and really hadn’t said anything since her original comment that we were speaking too loudly.

All of this should just go into one of those irritating, bizarre moments in life files and be forgotten.  However, it makes a point about assertiveness and life and career success.

The woman in 14C never told Cheryl and me that we were disturbing her sleep.  Instead, she chose to complain to the flight attendant about our conversation.  It came across to both Cheryl and me as a pretty aggressive and hostile gesture.  We both wondered why she just didn’t ask us to speak more softly.  That’s what an interpersonally competent person would have done.  That’s what someone who was taking responsibility for herself and her needs would have done.  That’s what an assertive person would have done.

Assertive people stand up for their rights, but do it in such a way as not to offend other people.  Passive people let others trample on them and don’t stand up for their rights.  Aggressive people get what they want, but at the expense of others.  In this case, 14C was being aggressive.

There are three common sense career success coach points here: 1) When you are on conflict with someone, take a counter intuitive approach.  Try to find some point of agreement that you have with the other person.  Use that point of agreement to collaboratively build a solution that resolves your conflict.  2) Take responsibility for yourself.  Tell people how you feel.  Don’t let others do things that make your life unpleasant.  3) Stand up for yourself in an assertive, non-aggressive way.  Follow the career advice in Tweet 133 in Success Tweets.  “Resolve conflict positively.  Treat conflict as an opportunity to strengthen, not destroy, the relationships you’ve worked hard to build.”  Conflict can destroy relationships – and it can strengthen them.  When you find yourself in conflict with another person, choose to see it as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with them.  The career advice here is simple.  Resolve conflict by acting in a positive, proactive and assertive manner.

That’s my career advice on how to resolve conflict.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  As always, thanks for reading my daily thoughts on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, I suggest that you check out my career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first gives you 140 bits of career success advice tweet style — in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: Have you seen my membership site, My Corporate Climb?  It’s devoted to helping people just like you create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about it by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb.


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