Healthy Conflict: Having Hard Conversations in the Workplace

Conflict is a challenging thing for many. Often people feel it should be avoided. For those who like to be ‘nice’ and maintain equilibrium, the mere thought of conflict makes you run for the hills. If you want ‘peace and harmony,’ avoiding conflict is a very natural response. I’m familiar with this experience myself. Harmony is one of my core values, so I’ve spent many years working to avoid conflict myself. 

As a leader, shirking away from difficult conversations due to apprehensions of conflict is a shortsighted and unproductive approach. In reality, conflict is often a manifestation of an underlying issue that requires resolution. By sidestepping these critical discussions, leaders are merely deferring the inevitable, with potentially dire consequences for the team’s productivity and morale. The better your skills are at dealing with conflict through healthy conversations, the more productive and fulfilling a workplace you will foster.

“If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along–whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.”  – Bernard Meltzer

The hallmark of a skilled leader is the ability to navigate challenging conversations with ease and finesse. As a leader, if you are catering to an impulse to ‘keep the peace’, you may be missing huge opportunities for enhanced performance.  When issues arise that regularly turn into a challenge or conflict, and you turn away rather than lean in, it can actually make the situation worse. Ignoring problems can cause stress, anxiety, and miscommunication to build up over time. It’s important to tackle issues head-on in a timely manner to prevent further complications.

After many years of working with people to develop communication skills and healthy relationships, I’m more convinced than ever that we need to develop our skills to welcome problems and develop a more productive approach to conflict, and eradicate the notion that ‘conflict’ is a dirty word.

I recently published an article about embracing ‘conflict’ in personal relationships (Welcoming Problems in Relationships is an Opportunity for Growth). Mastering healthy conflict in the workplace is a vastly underdeveloped skill, as challenging to develop as it is in personal relationships.  By reframing conflict as an opportunity rather than a mere obstacle to be avoided, a leader can cultivate a new perspective that enables them to develop invaluable skills in conflict resolution.

Context: Conflict as an Opportunity

Conflict is often seen as an interaction to be avoided.  There’s no use in fighting or arguing, right?  From this perspective, it seems reasonable to minimise it, or avoid it altogether.  However, if you look at conflict as a ‘state of differing views where two people lack understanding,’ conflict can become a useful register, and recognising this mismatch in thinking and embracing the moment with curiosity, it can become an opportunity to  eliminate a barrier, and restore connection.

Where a discussion becomes a problem or conflict is often as a result of thoughts and emotions running in the background that have triggered an alternate conversation in our heads. When two individuals engage in a debate which involves opposing views, they might unintentionally activate their ingrained patterns of thinking. This can make it difficult to think objectively, and turn the discussion into a game of verbal ping pong.  This produces frustration, even positionality, which can hijack the conversation.  Our higher self or natural genius uses curiosity, which gives us the ability to see the other person’s perspective, allowing for a real give and take of ideas.

What would be possible if we could recognise and interrupt this automaticity and address the thing itself – the differing views that have come to light? It can be a real challenge when a conversation becomes heated and hard to step back and recognise the role our thoughts and emotions are playing in the moment.  But for the sake of argument, imagine for a moment the power you would have if you did recognise that a thought pattern is in charge, and had the ability to interrupt it… what then would be possible? 

How do we develop our awareness sufficient to put the emotional banshees and disempowering thoughts at bay and engage in the moment in a healthy conversation that will result in resolution?  This is part of the skill set of sage-like leaders.

What’s the Saboteur Trap?

The Saboteur trap begins with a moment of being ‘hijacked’ by a brain pattern going off, a thought or emotion that triggers in us into an automatic reaction. Saboteurs come in many varieties, but what they all have in common is automaticity.  (In fact, they arise from an overuse of our greatest strengths, but more on that later.) In the Positive Intelligence model there are 9 Saboteurs, and one master saboteur, the Judge. We all have a saboteur profile, derived from a lifetime of experiences that laid down tracks in our neural network, our mental operating system.  Curious? You can discover your own saboteur profile by taking this free assessment. (NOTE: As a Certified Positive Intelligence Coach, I facilitate the PQ Mental Fitness Program)

Thanks to our Judge and the hijacking of our Saboteurs, we are often focussed on what’s wrong with a situation, or on the views of ourselves or others that set us off, and we fail to see when we are in a reaction.  Worse yet, we are rarely present to the role we play in the co-authored dynamic that is at play when we are challenged or faced with conflict. Our Judge kicks in and says something like “What you did upset me, you are wrong, it’s your fault I’m feeling this way…” or blames a circumstance for our negativity.  When our mental fitness is strong, we have access to awareness, and Sage-like responses that call forth empathy, creativity and intuition, allowing us to deal effectively with a circumstance or an interaction in the moment.

To make matters worse, as leaders we often feel compelled to maintain a facade of unflappable composure, even when we are struggling with emotional triggers.  A simple ability to recognise a trigger for what it is, call it out and restore ourselves to clear-headed thinking is the objective of building mental fitness.

How often are you willing to telescope in when something’s been activated internally? Do you think to yourself “Hey, I’m getting really irritated here…I wonder what automatic pattern is going on with me?” Too often the ‘egoic mind’ or our view of who we should be as a leader or the authority figure – composed, all knowing, impermeable to emotion – colours how we interact in a challenging situation.  It may overpower the ability to operate with a sound mind. Can you tell if you are reacting to the issue itself, or to the part of you being reactivated? If you have high emotional intelligence (EQ), you might see the upset or dynamic underway, but you may be even better served with positive intelligence (PQ) to shift your brain patterns and deal effectively with a situation or human interaction in the moment.

Accessing your Sage for Understanding

Self awareness and our self command muscle are both key to unlocking our Sage. Together they help us recognise when we are being triggered and blaming situations, others or even ourselves for an experience. When something happens that is a catalyst for our negative emotion or upset, we need to be responsible for our own reactions – they are our unique brain patterns, afterall, no one else’s – in order to bring equanimity, power and resolve to challenging situations.

Short of developing your mental fitness, how can you begin to practice accessing your Sage?   You start by developing an awareness of your triggers.  It takes vigilance to catch yourself in a reaction – blaming others for how you feel or for your emotional state – but here are the steps to take to practice. 

An Exercise to Interrupt the Saboteur Dynamic

At times, our reactions can be triggered by an inner voice that undermines our efforts and sabotages our success. This dynamic can be disrupted with a simple exercise that involves the following steps:

  1. STOP – interrupt the ‘reaction’ and take a moment to get aware.
  2. OBSERVE –  what’s going on? What ‘saboteur’ is in the driver seat?
  3. ACKNOWLEDGE – describe what is going beneath the reaction – what’s behind the upset, anger, frustration? 
  4. EMPATHY – when you distinguish a reaction as an automatic pattern (distinct from your real or best self) you can bring empathy and curiosity for yourself and others.
  5. SHARE your experience – be vulnerable; voicing your reaction allows others to hear the trap, restores ‘humanness’ to the situation; they may resonate with your struggle, and bring empathy as well.
  6. ACCESS your sage-like wisdom – communicate your concerns, share your view, and listen to theirs.

Here are these steps in a bit more detail:


Upon experiencing a trigger (a negative emotion), it is wise to stop it in its tracks. Breathe. Take a moment to discern that you are having a reaction to something said, or a situation. This momentary break facilitates space between you and the situation, enabling you to respond rather than react impulsively.

Example: “I’m feeling frustrated and angry right now. Let me take a moment to understand why.”


Observe what is happening in your thoughts (usually a judgment or a criticism). Identify what your inner voice or ‘saboteur’ is saying which is causing the emotional reaction. Awareness is the first step in disempowering a self-sabotaging thought which is triggered by a brain pattern, nothing more.

Example: “My inner critic is telling me that I’m not good enough or “I’m judging my colleague as ‘stupid’ because of what he said or did.”


Looking deeper, articulate the emotions and bodily experience that go along with the thoughts which are causing the upset in your reaction. This helps unveil concealed anxieties, vulnerabilities, or unsatisfied requirements that are fueling the reaction. 

Example: “I’m upset because I feel like I’m not being heard or respected.” or “My pulse is racing, I’m scared I messed up and am going to damage my reputation.”


Recognising your reaction as an automatic response not YOU, allows you to gain some distance from this complex reaction, it makes space to bring empathy and curiosity. You can choose how you respond with this space – empathy or kindness for yourself or others, and clear thinking will bring new and creative responses to the situation not available in a reactive state.

Example: “Wow, that was a serious curve ball, it’s understandable I feel this way given the circumstances, but I am doing the best I can. I wonder who can help me solve this problem?”

SHARE your experience

Sharing your candid and sincere experience can soften or break the dynamic. A display of vulnerability rekindles a sense of humanity, restoring connection to self and others.  it might allow for humour, or lighten the situation. Additionally, it provides a platform for others to extend their support and empathy towards you.  By adopting this approach, you demonstrate an astute level of sophistication and professionalism, while effectively conveying the gravity and profundity of the situation.

Example: “I’m struggling with feeling undervalued at the moment. I’ve done so much work on this project, and I’m not sure it’s being recognised. It’s important to me to succeed, so I’m putting myself under a lot of pressure, which has me on edge.”

ACCESS your sage-like wisdom  

Ultimately, tap into your innate wisdom and articulate your concerns, divulge your perspective, and attentively heed the perspectives of others. Such an approach fosters a cooperative and empowering dynamic that engenders heightened success and gratification.

Example: “I believe that we can achieve better outcomes if we work together more effectively. How can we better support each other?”

In essence, this guide serves as a valuable resource to discontinue the saboteur dynamic and enhance your ability to manage situations that trigger negative responses. By taking a brief pause and accessing your inner acumen, you can cultivate a more optimistic and fruitful outcome. Endeavor to implement these strategies and witness their efficacy firsthand.

Why Embrace Conflict

It is easy to shy away from conflict, to avoid confrontation and to retreat into our comfort zones. 

Remember, healthy conflict is not about winning or losing. It is not about being right or wrong. It is about engaging in productive conversations that challenge our assumptions, broaden our perspectives and help us to reach better decisions. When we approach conflict in this way, we create a culture of learning and development, one where we are all encouraged to grow and improve, and everyone benefits.

It is an opportunity that we should embrace with open arms. It takes courage and vulnerability to embrace conflict, but the rewards are well worth the effort. So, let us all commit to embracing healthy conflict as an opportunity for growth, both personally and professionally.