two women disagreeing with each other (illustrating an article about dealing with conflict)I know so many women (and men), including many in leadership positions, who do not know how to handle conflict. So, they avoid it at any cost, which, unfortunately, leads to organizational and relational issues. Or, they get defensive and escalate the conflict, which also leads to organizational and relational issues. We mediate conflict between our kids all the time — but when it comes to adult relationships, we find it much harder.

I don’t claim to be an expert at conflict management, but I’ve learned over the years that relationships work better when you’re willing to dig in and work through things. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned (many the hard way) over the years:

Don’t avoid the conflict

When there’s conflict in a situation, everyone knows it. It’s immature and not helpful to avoid it entirely. It builds trust to be able to address it without getting defensive or aggressive. When you ignore it, it festers or destroys trust and relationships. As a caveat, sometimes an internal processor needs space and time, so don’t force the issue — but create space to deal with it when they’re ready.

Name the conflict and stick to just the one conflict at hand

I had a family member growing up who, anytime there was conflict, would recite the full litany of all the things the other person had ever done wrong in their lifetime. It was exhausting and infuriating, and the conflict always snowballed. Stick to the one issue at hand, not the history. Be specific in naming the issue, and use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Avoid “always” and “never” whenever possible.

Rather than make assumptions, ask questions

Rather than assume someone is mad at you, ask direct but kind questions. “It seems like you’re frustrated with me. Am I reading that correctly?” Or, “I get the sense that X is causing issues. Is that right? Do you have any suggestions for what we could do better there?”

Accept responsibility wherever you can, but not for the things you can’t

Humility and a willingness to acknowledge you haven’t done everything perfectly — that there is room for growth — go a long way in building trust, even if the ultimate conclusion is not what the person wanted. Look for your own culpability first, and be willing to acknowledge it. Be specific. In the same vein, unless you have holistically goofed, you don’t want to swing the other way and just blanket apologize for everything. That’s not actually helpful either. The blanket apology actually just says, “I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I’d like to avoid this conflict at all costs.”

To the best of your ability, don’t make it personal

We’re human. We (all) get a little defensive when someone doesn’t like something about us or our decisions or policies. But most conflicts can be isolated to an event, statement, difference of opinion, or external circumstance. In other words, most conflicts don’t have to be personal. This is where it’s incredibly helpful to name the conflict, specifically. Rather than, “She doesn’t like me,” remind yourself that, “She doesn’t like that curriculum choice” or, “She doesn’t like how I handled that decision.” In both of those circumstances, the subject of the sentence is an event or a decision, not you personally.

Don’t be afraid to say, “I need to think about that” or, “Can I get back to you?”

Oftentimes, the biggest obstacle to handling organizational conflict is simply not knowing what the best way forward is. So we avoid the conflict until we “have it all figured out.” But that leaves the other person feeling hung out to dry. Wherever possible, try to respond quickly and succinctly to let the other person know they are heard. So often we feel the pressure of time to have an answer completely and instantaneously, whereas so often we can handle it with so much more wisdom and humility if we take a little time to reflect.

And, most importantly,

Don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry” if you messed up

You will never fully resolve any conflict if you are unwilling to say an authentic, “I’m sorry” when you’ve messed up. And when you step into conflict, you will mess up. Humility builds trust and knits together relationships.

Conflict can be scary, but we can handle it so much better by being willing to step in with grace and humility!

Kristen is Southern by birth but has called Boston home since 2008. Unlike most Boston natives, she still really loves the snow and cold. She and her husband have two energetic and kind sons (2013, 2014) and a sassy, smart baby girl (2016). Kristen jokes that she has a master's degree in laundry and a PhD in child conflict resolution — which she uses far more than her actual physics and politics degrees. After seven years as a stay-at-home mom, Kristen went back to work full-time in 2021 as a program coordinator for a research lab at Boston Children’s Hospital. In her "spare" time, she runs her own business (Murph&Moose), serves on multiple alumni committees for her alma mater, and runs half marathons. Her passion is seeing moms feel comfortable in their own skin and less alone in the chaos that is motherhood. Loves: gardening, science, languages, coffee by the vat, running, time with her girlfriends, and the rare moments of silence when all three children are (finally) in bed Dislikes: daylight saving time, non-washable markers, and noisy neighbors who disrupt her rare moments of silence