The Fastest and Best Way to Resolve the Conflicts That Can Hamper Your Career Success

Yesterday I did the keynote address at the Childcare Network annual Director’s conference.  I’m not an expert in pre-schools, so I visited a Childcare Network school on Wednesday to get a better understanding of what their School Directors do every day.  I was glad I did!  The Childcare Network schools are amazing places that prepare kids for kindergarten.  I enjoyed my visit so much that I didn’t want to leave.

My blog post yesterday was on the importance of thinking before you speak – especially when you are in a conflict situation.  Among many other things the Childcare Network teaches young children how to manage conflict.  They use a hand as their model.  Posters depicting the hand were prominently displayed in every classroom.

Here is the Childcare Network’s approach to helping children learn how to manage conflict…

  1. Thumb.  Cool down. The teacher gets each child to sit down, breathe deep and get calm enough to discuss the problem.
  2. Index Finger – Discuss and agree on the problem. The teacher asks for both version of what happened and explains what doesn’t work – like hitting or fighting.  The teacher then guides the kids to figure out what they can do differently.
  3. Middle Finger – Brainstorm solutions everybody can live with. The teacher asks the kids to come up with idea on fixing the problem they are having.
  4. Ring Finger – Select the solution that seems reasonable to all. The teacher tries to use the kids’ ideas, but offers suggestions if the kids can’t or won’t come up with any ideas.
  5. Pinkie – Try it out. The teacher asks the kids to put the ideas into practice, and watch as they do.  The teacher gives positive reinforcement to kids who are able to put the solution to work and gives guidance on how to do so when they are struggling to do so.

Childcare Network teachers report that when they use this conflict management style, the kids get back together after the conflict “as if nothing ever happened.”

In the material they provide parents they say…

“Punishing a child for having a conflict and then telling them to apologize is not the right way to create lasting learning experiences.  Nor is it a good way to create lasting learning experiences that will help children deal with conflict as they get older.”

I teach the same method of conflict resolution to my career success coaching clients…

  • Calm down.
  • Agree on the problem.
  • Brainstorm solutions.
  • Pick one.
  • Put it into play.

Conflict resolution is a life skill that is important for career success.  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.”

Successful people resolve conflict in a positive manner.  No matter how interpersonally competent, or how easy-going you are, you will inevitably find yourself in conflict.  People will not always agree with you, and you will not always agree with others.

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
  • 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.

The Childcare Network conflict resolution model is based on collaboration.  It gets the kids to focus on the problem behind the conflict and to jointly come up with a solution that works well for both of them.

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.

Successful people are adept at resolving conflict in a positive manner.  Collaboration is the best choice of the five most common handling styles.  When you collaborate with others – especially those with whom you are in conflict – you not only are likely to resolve your conflict in a positive manner, you will strengthen your relationship with the other person.  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.

One of my favorite methods for dealing with conflict in a collaborative manner 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.  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.

You want to be assertive, not aggressive in resolving conflict.  Here’s a true story.  It happened several years ago on Frontier flight 862, Denver to Phoenix.  I got on late because I was 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 personal responsibility, interpersonal competence 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 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.

It’s called being assertive.  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.  As I think back on that rather bizarre episode, I wish that Ms. 14 C had the benefit of attending a Childcare Network school when she was a child.

There are two career success coach points here.  Both are simple common sense.  First, take responsibility for yourself.  Tell people how you feel.  Don’t let others do things that make your life unpleasant.  Second, stand up for yourself and resolve conflict in an assertive, non-aggressive, collaborative manner.  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.  Collaborate with them to solve your joint problem.  In this way, you’ll resolve conflict positively and strengthen the relationships that are key to your life and career success.

That’s my career advice on conflict resolution – and that of the Childcare Network as well.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  As always, thanks for reading my daily musings on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, please download a free copy of my popular 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: I opened a membership site last September.  It’s called My Corporate Climb and is devoted to helping people create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about the membership site by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb


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