By Gail Gumminger

For many of us, there was a time when we experienced and/or led difficult conversations about once or twice a month. Issues and concerns were certainly occurring at a slower pace. We had more time to prepare for our approach to tough situations. 

Things have changed. The rapid pace of change in our work environments has moved things into overdrive. As a result, we don’t have as much time to prepare and plan for issues. Now, it seems all of us are experiencing difficult conversations daily. 

We know conflict is an inevitable part of our work environment and that healthy conflict is effective for good decision-making and problem-solving. Difficult conversations in a safe environment support transparency and safety. But how do we know when it goes too far and becomes disruptive and destructive? 

A study conducted by CPP in partnership with OPP (Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness it to Thrive, 2008) found that the majority of employees (85%) have to deal with conflict to some degree, 29% do so “always” or “frequently”, and the average employee spends 2.1 hours per week dealing with conflict which translates to 385 million working days spent every year as a result of conflict in the workplace.”

While these statistics are from 2008, the aftermath of the pandemic and subsequent challenges of hybrid workforces has only added more complexity and ambiguity to the issues leaders have to manage daily. 

In fact, in 2021, global research from The Workforce Institute at UKG revealed a widening communication gap between employers and staff with 83 percent feeling that people at their organization are not heard fairly or equally and another 46 percent reporting that underrepresented voices remain undervalued by employers. Other issues are occurring because of shifting values and the tendency for people to voice their opinions more readily.

However, many employees still feel that even if they do speak up, their voices will not be heard, which is illustrated by the 34 percent of employees would rather quit or switch teams than voice their true concerns with management. This lack of connection and trust between employees and staff is troubling in an era where The Great Resignation has made it more difficult to recruit and retain highly qualified staff. 

As leaders, we spend a significant amount of time managing disputes and disagreements that escalate beyond an effective level. Unsurprisingly, poorly managed conflict and tension comes at a high cost – to individuals and to the organization. On a personal level, it can feel like a wedge and a personal attack. Trust and relationships erode. The ability to collaborate is diminished. On an organizational level, the work feels harder to do and timelines are tougher to meet. Poorly managed conflict can negatively impact operational effectiveness, productivity, morale, and organizational trust is severely impacted. As if this weren’t enough, ultimately, the organization’s bottom line suffers.

So, how do we stay in conversation to work through difficulties with diplomacy and productivity? We should remember that every conflict has the potential to bring about positive change. How do we keep our conversations clean?

6 Key Tips for Keeping Your Conversations Clean:

  1. Don’t Wait. While it is true that taking a little time to calm down and think through issues can help keep things from escalating, simply brushing the conflict aside and not dealing with it promptly will only serve to fan the flames of discontent and resentment. Our best bet is to gather as much information as possible and address the issue head-on and as quickly as possible.
  2. Assume Positive Intent. It is human nature to assume that when we ourselves are good, it’s because we are inherently good people, and when we do something bad it’s due to a mistake; while at the same time assuming that when others do bad, it’s because they are purposely being bad. When we are entering a conversation to try to come to a resolution, it’s important to always enter assuming positive intent from the parties involved. We should give the benefit of the doubt until we are proven wrong. If through our conversations we determine that the situation is escalating due to a toxic employee, we then know that their intent is counterproductive to the team and the organization. We then can work to manage them out.
  3. Stay Curious and Listen. By getting ourselves into the right space to listen deeply to others, we enable ourselves to approach the situation from a neutral place. We can then more easily distinguish between the words, the tone of voice, and body language. Summarize, paraphrase, reiterate, and mirror back what is said to ensure clarity and understanding.
  4. Read the Room. It’s important to know our teams and to be able to distinguish between true conflict and emotional charge. We should always get to the root of others’ intentions before weighing in on the situation. Depending on the atmosphere in the room, it may be in the best interest of all involved to take some time to cool off and think rationally through options before attempting to resolve the conflict.
  5. Find Connection. When possible, find common ground. This is not always easy, and many times takes longer, but the long-term objective of building trust and collaboration is worth the effort. In time, decisions and disputes will be more easily attained if the effort is made in the beginning.
  6. Be Honest. If we expect our teams to be honest with us, we must first model that behavior. We must open the lines of communication to be transparent, tell employees what we understand the issue to be, and offer possible options for resolving the conflict that are within the bounds of reason for the organization. By being honest about both the situation and the possible resolution, we build trust with our teams and help them learn how to deal productively with future conflicts.

While it may be tempting to brush aside conflict in the interest of moving things forward more quickly, this strategy will most certainly backfire on us. The better option is to address the issue promptly and with understanding. Taking this approach allows us to have difficult conversations in a safe environment that supports transparency and safety.

As good as this sounds, the reality is that sometimes conflicts can be so big that we can’t see the big picture because we’re too focused on the difficulties and challenges. In these situations, it can be helpful to get an unbiased evaluation from someone who is not invested in the outcome of the situation. We would love to partner with you to talk through your identified issues, provide new perspectives, and create a conflict management plan that will help you move through conflict in a different way as you move forward. Having a strong conflict management plan in place can also help build an organizational culture of trust and fairness that will help you retain your valued workforce and achieve your strategic goals. Please contact us for a complimentary consultation at or call us at 970-279-3330.

Our mission is to give voice and action to an emerging future. As a partner in your success, we would love to come alongside you to help you find your voice, see your vision, and imagine what the right action could be for you, your team, and your organization.