My mom has a favourite saying when it comes to conflict:” Do you want to be RIGHT, or do you want to live in Harmony?” She says that because she hates conflict and heated arguments. She says this because she’d rather NOT get her way than arguing with someone. On the surface it seems to be a good strategy for healthy relationships, but at its core lies a huge risk of deeper confrontations, and broken relationships in the long run.

The question is why do we have to have these difficult conversations? WHY are difficult conversations necessary in families AND companies?

Someone once said that conflict is the immune system of relationships, and I kind of like that. Conflict is suggesting that one part of the whole is not doing well and needs attention. Imagine a body without an immune system… impossible to live a healthy life. We need to know when something is wrong, and we need to be equipped to make the most of these opportunities.

If I approach difficult conversations with the right attitude:

  1. I get to know myself better by receiving feedback from someone else. Charles Coonradt is known to have said:

    “Failure to give appropriate and timely feedback is the most extreme cruelty that we can inflict on any human being.”

    We owe constructive feedback to the people we care about, but will only create opportunities to give feedback, once we have proven our willingness to receive it from someone else…
  2. In this way, I manage my own resistance to change, but also create an environment where those I interact with are more willing to change.
  3. This allows me to influence the behaviour of those around me and leads to improved relationships.
  4. If I keep doing this, it leads to a learning environment where the critical mass is “open” and willing to engage.

I realise that knowing the above doesn’t make difficult conversations simple or easy, but there are practical ways to prepare and develop the skills to address complicated situations in a constructive way. Allow me to share three truths with you.

  1. Establish a foundation of Trust:

    If the foundation is strong, a building can endure the onslaughts of the environment. If the foundation is weak or faulty, a building is at risk even under normal circumstances.

    The secret is to build this foundation of trust in all the applicable relationships right from the start, and to maintain them throughout:
    • To engage people emotionally and let them share their interests.
    • To be conscious of their priorities and come to understand the risks they face in their projects, tasks and/or lives.
    • To make yourself vulnerable and share the same information with those that you live and work with.
    • To be trustworthy and demonstrate behaviours that give people the confidence to trust you. And lastly to learn …
    • To be more trusting: demonstrating behaviours that show others that you trust them and have confidence in them.
  2. Dress for the occasion – put your HATS on:
    • Honesty with wisdom is the first important hat. It speaks about authenticity, but also being sensitive to the other person’s feelings. Some things might be true, but inapplicable or irrelevant in the situation.
    • Accuracy. Focus on the facts. Do your homework, don’t make sweeping statements or judgemental comments. ‘Always’ and ‘Never’ is always incomplete and never fully accurate…
    • Truth – This should be the intention of all parties involved – to uncover the truth – ALL three sides of the argument – mine, yours and the bigger picture.

      You shall KNOW the TRUTH, and the TRUTH will set you FREE (John 8:32)
    • Solutions. Once everyone understands each other; the focus should be on finding, developing, and agreeing on solutions.
  3. Practice makes Better

    Skill comes from consistent and deliberate practice. (John Allen)

    I’m not suggesting that we pick fights with those around us to become better at engaging in difficult conversations. I am however suggesting that we should stop avoiding or postponing the difficult conversations we know we should be having.
    • Make a list of the conversations that you need to have.
    • Contact those people immediately and set a date in the near future.
    • Tell them what the reason for the conversation is, to allow them to prepare.
    • Make sure that all of you have your HATS on for the occasion.

If you do this right, I can guarantee you that your relationships will be stronger, more meaningful, and sustainable. Be brave! Do it NOW.

With Love.
Stefan Lessing

Runge, C.E. & Flanagan, T.I. (2007). Becoming a conflict-competent leader. John Wiley & Sons. San Francisco.
Capobianco, S., Davis, M., and Kraus, L. (1999). Conflict Dynamics Profile. Eckerd College. St. Petersburg.
Zand, D.E. (1997). The leadership triad: knowledge, trust, and power. Oxford University Press. New York.