How to Avoid Conflict – Part 1

How to Avoid Conflict – Part 1 150 150 Laura Sicola

At some point or other, we all have to have important conversations that have the potential to get ugly and uncomfortable. When in doubt, I say do your best to avoid the conflict.

I’m not talking about avoiding people in the hallways, refusing to answer the phone or saying “yes” to everyone – whether or not you mean it – so that you don’t have to say “no.”

There will always be disagreements and necessary discussions about difficult or unpleasant topics. But these conversations do not need to degenerate into round after round of browbeating to try to get your point across.

Ideally, the goal is to address the issue in a way that gets to the heart of the matter, and reaches a mutually agreeable resolution quickly and efficiently without raising voices or blood pressure. There is one intuitive – and yet commonly overlooked – key that can keep most disagreements in the realm of civil, productive discussion.

The key is consciously listening to understand. This is where most people fall woefully short in both their efforts and their outcomes. Listening to understand is critical to avoiding real argument for one crucial reason: most people continue to argue a point because they feel like they have not truly been heard or understood.

Most people think that they listen, but the short answer is that they don’t do it right. Let’s look at the difference and key strategies for listening in a way that gets to a peaceful, positive, and productive result.


Listening “wrong”

In disagreements, most people “listen” in order to find an opportunity to interrupt, contradict, or defend. This isn’t sincere listening; it’s more like scanning the horizon for the best time to retaliate.

When both parties are simultaneously focused proving why they are correct and the other is wrong, what they are both (rightfully) saying is, “You’re not listening to me!”

This quickly leads to an impasse with one of two outcomes: The first is that both sides leave feeling frustrated, with no resolution to the issue at hand. In the second, one side “wins” by forcing the other side to concede, i.e. lose. This leaves the winner with a bitter-sweet “victory,” and the loser feeling resentful, a combination that will have a variety of negative repercussions down the line in the form of morale, work quality, and office politics just to name a few.

The irony is that when people are able to voice their concerns, and truly feel like they have been heard and understood, they are often willing to accept “no” for an answer. So how does that work?


Listening “right”

When you listen to understand, you start by erasing any presuppositions and assumptions that you already know what they’re going to say and why. Instead, you enter the conversation from the perspective that there’s a missing piece, something you don’t yet know or understand about their position, priorities, interests or concerns. Be curious.

Invite the other person to share first. A good strategy is to take notes as you listen, which serves several purposes. First, you can record any key points so that you don’t forget them, which serves as a good future reference resource.

Second, you can jot down any questions or other thoughts you want to share. Don’t get me wrong – the idea is not to list all the points you disagree on just so you can launch into a point-counterpoint debate when it’s your turn to speak. That feels litigious, not collaborative or respectful.

Writing down your ideas as you listen has a variety of benefits. First and foremost, it keeps you from interrupting. When people aren’t interrupted, they feel more respected and less stressed or frustrated, which helps to keep the peace. But it also gives you a chance to reflect and organize your thoughts before you do finally speak, which can streamline the process, avoid clumsy and emotionally-charged knee-jerk responses, and help you prioritize issues to address.



In part 2 we’ll address Talking from Listening: once you’ve heard them out, what do you say to keep things moving in the right direction?


Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!