Professional, caring conflict resolution starts with listening, watching

Chad Williams/DroneBase via AP This statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va, is a symbol of heritage to some, a source of conflict to others. Some of the oldest and largest Confederate statues in the U.S. tower over Monument Avenue.

Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and other communities are unmasking deep-seated pain, bigotry and destructive hatred unlike anything we have seen in years.


I want to begin the next sentence with “people of good will,” but that would be disconnected from reality and common sense. There are people in our society whose definition of “good will” cannot be found in any dictionary known to literate people.

All of us know, on any compass point of this issue, that monuments are but symbols, on the one hand of heritage and the other of long-held anger.

Conflict is a tenured resident in the human experience that will always be with us.

I suspect in honest moments, our most challenging conflicts meet us in the corridors of our own individual selves. We wrestle with values, beliefs, morality, prejudices, loves, hates, likes, dislikes and feelings. These inner conflicts come and go and, for the most part, we resolve them in ways that keep us comfortable in our own skin. We fabricate self-justified resolutions that calm the soul’s waters, at least for the moment.


Other times, we find ourselves embroiled in conflict with other people.

That other person, or persons, might be a spouse or significant other, a child, parent or family member. Married individuals learn, hopefully early on, to find “win-win” resolutions to conflict. Family members pose other challenges – sometimes without being solve-able.

Business owners, community leaders, clients who are still working and homeowners meet conflict over all kinds of issues, from contract disputes to barking dogs to compensation and bonus misunderstandings. Conflict is part of who we are and, like it or not, is here to stay.

Hard to admit, much less face, our clients may occasionally be in conflict with us. No matter how hard we work to build strong relationships, misunderstandings, missteps and even mis-hearings occur that leave us and others on opposite sides of an issue.

When this happens, when someone in our care calls or shows up in our office who is wrestling with some deep conflict – whether or not it is with us or others – how do we handle it and lead the person sitting with us to a better place?

Let me mention three quick handles you can use when conflict shows up.


First, create a safe place for the other person to vent. Give the person sitting with you the courtesy you would want from others. Offer and receive the assurance that what is said will go no further than the room’s walls. When people feel safe, two things can happen. It raises the importance of the conversation to a higher level and it gives both people permission to speak candidly.

Second, validate the other person’s feelings and put into words what you feel and hear. Feelings carry boatloads of information if we have the courage to absorb and interpret them. What you may discover is your client is not upset with you, but rather a spouse who is unhappy about something entirely different.

No matter what your client says, respond by saying, “I think I hear you saying ______” – feeding back to them in your own words what you heard.


Third, take in the body language. Do you witness squirming in the chair, a twitch of the cheek, a reddening of the face, or anxious gestures signaling vulnerability? Voice inflection or the lack thereof are indicators of feeling pregnant with meaning. Ask if what you are hearing squares with what you are seeing.

Lastly, ask them to express options for resolving the conflict. Refuse to “fix” the problem, but rather invite several possible ways the issue might be resolved.

As you hear solutions, ask what steps would be needed by all parties to move toward resolution, and potential “best case” results that might be anticipated. Your goal as an adviser is to find clarity, reconciliation and renewal of a relationship that is broken.

You may not help your client reach resolution, but you can begin the process that assures him or her you are a trusted, supportive friend. Doing so models appropriate conflict resolution and moves the relationship to a stronger place.


The writer, who lives in Augusta, is the author of Cadence of Care: Imagining a Transformed Advisor-Client Experience and can be followed on his blog at



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