A Framework for Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

How does conflict make you feel? If you’re like most people, difficult conversations in the workplace make you feel very uncomfortable.

But there are things you can do to make it less stressful.

To be more conflict confident, you need to prepare.

And I’ve got a very simple tool to help you achieve this, but the key to getting better at it is to learn to recognise the triggers for yourself and carve out time for deliberate and purposeful practise of this approach.

The goal of this framework is to spend time to understand and become aware of what’s happening in that moment that conflict is occurring, or potentially what might happen.

Whilst we know that we can’t control the thoughts, feelings or behaviours of others we can manage our own reactions and approach. So with that knowledge, we want to have every chance to make an impact on changing our own reactions and behaviours, therefore having a better chance of creating a more positive impact on the feelings, thoughts, and behaviours of the person or people we are in conflict with.

Note: Before you continue with this article, please make sure to read Understanding Conflict first, as it explains concepts that are mentioned in this article that are necessary to make it work.

The 6 Stages of Conflict

Think through a situation you’re either dealing with right now, or you’ve dealt with recently, around a potential conflict situation. Now follow the stages to purposefully approach conflict.

Framework for managing conflict

A – Awareness

The awareness stage is where you become aware of your own responses and that of others.

Be aware of yourself …

  • your own hot buttons or triggers (and the good news is that just being aware of a trigger will interrupt the trigger)
  • any physical feelings (heating up, changes in breathing, tensing your jaw, tension in your shoulders)

Be aware of the other person and how they react. There are times we don’t think we’re in a conflict situation but they show all the responses and signs that they feel they’re moving into conflict. So be aware of their breathing, their change in tone of voice or a change in their physical being.

Watch yourself and others. Look at …

  • facial expressions
  • body language
  • movements in a chair

When you pay attention, you can notice when people start to get uncomfortable.

Become The Watcher

The Watcher is a conscious position you can take in watching yourself and the situation, outside of the situation.

For example, if I find myself moving into a conflict situation and I’m getting all those telltale signs … I’m kind of heating up, I’m starting to furrow my brow … I can pull myself out and think, “Oh, that’s interesting that you’re responding like that, Amy. What that person said is having this effect on you.”

Being the Watcher allows you to interrupt and create a pause between the reaction you might be having, and become more purposeful and conscious about how you want to manage yourself and this situation.

But also remember that you’ll have different responses to different situations and with different people. Depending on the week or day you are having, how pressured you feel before you start that conversation with someone or the thing that happened at home before you started your day – they can all have an impact on how you react in the moment to someone or something.

Action Steps:

  • Learn your own hot buttons and triggers and notice when they’re happening
  • Watch how other people react to see if they feel a conflict even if you don’t
  • Become the Watcher and become more purposeful and conscious about how to manage yourself and the situation

B – Breathe

The second one is quite simple.

Breathe. Take a deep breath.

It seems so simple. But we often forget it, especially when we’re moving into a situation that causes us discomfort. So remember to breathe.

Recognise that you need to give yourself, your brain, and your body a break from the reactive mode it might be in. Create that interrupt.

Try spelling out the word breathe to yourself as you breathe in. By the time you get to the E at the end, you can stop and be able to release it again.

The goal is to be able to concentrate on that and be okay with it. And be able to change your emotional state in that moment and not let it control and run away with your emotions and reaction. Breathing will also have an impact on your voice, which can help de-escalate the situation.

Action Steps:

  • When a conflict crops up, take a deep, slow breath
  • Concentrate on and spell out the word ‘breathe’ to yourself as you breathe in to keep it slow

C – Consideration

The third one is consideration. Consider the situation.

You want to take yourself from the point of interrupting the emotion that was starting to happen and consider the situation and the person or people you are with. It’s at this point that I want to be mindful and considerate of how I’m going to change this from a potential relationship conflict to a task conflict.

This is about assuming positive intent. Assuming positive intent of the people that you work with or for will help you move into that particular stage of the conflict.

I promise you 90% of people do not turn up every day with the sole aim of pissing you off. They don’t take it as their job in life to come in and make sure you have a terrible day.

They have much more focus on themselves and what they need to get done, or the challenges that they’re going through.

Make sure you can reframe and remember that this person probably has positive intent. Something else may just be going on for them right now or they might not understand the impact of their action or decision on you. 

To turn this potential ‘relationship conflict’ into a ‘task conflict,’ start by assuming positive intent. This is very much a collaborative mindset approach.

Action Steps:

  • Consider the challenges that might be facing the other person or people (work issues, family life, etc.)
  • Enter with a win/win attitude – how might we be able to solve this in a way that will benefit both of us?
  • How can we change the perspective to how we both win? 
  • Can you reframe the situation in a better way?
  • What words can you use to maintain a positive intent and position a reframe of the situation?

D – Deep listening

What is deep listening? It is sometimes called listening for understanding or active listening. And it’s a skill that all of us need to get better at. 

Deep listening is where you’re really listening for understanding rather than 

  • what you want to hear or not 
  • where you can prove a point 
  • waiting to disagree
  • or to put your own ideas forward

This is a state you need to get into where you create a deep level of curiosity. You want to really understand the position or situation the other person is in. 

For deep listening, use the 80/20 rule – 20% of you asking questions or talking and 80% listening to the other person. (If you’re interested in more on this I recommend you read Corrine Armour – The Leader Who Asks)

Focus on What, How, When (Not Why)

Focus on asking the What, How, When questions but avoid Why questions. Why can tend to make people more defensive.

I often find that I have to interrupt myself asking, “Why” when I’m trying to understand a situation. If you find you do the same, I suggest you create some focus and deliberately practise to replace it with an alternative such as “and tell me a little more about what you were trying to xxxx.”  

Deep listening is a practice point that you can have without conflict. You can do it in any conversation that you enter into. Just keep in your mind, how could you practice your deep listening skills? I’ll be covering more on deep active listening in some upcoming blogs on coaching skills, critical thinking and meaningful feedback. Let’s just say if this was more of anything we should do as leaders and managers it would be … take a deep breath, lean in and listen more!

Make a point to NOT jump in with your opinions and get good at really listening to what the other person is saying, remembering the language they use to express themselves and ask questions that keep them talking.

Repeat back what you’ve heard in their language. Don’t do this in an inauthentic robotic way. This is actually how you confirm you have understood what they’ve said. 

For example, if they use words around feelings such as, “I feel X, I feel Y about the situation,” then you use the word “feel” when you repeat back what you heard them say. 

If they say, “I see what you’re saying, or I hear what you’re saying,” that’s the language they use to interpret their world or model their world. 

So you use that same language back to them. “So what I hear you saying is …..” This approach is how you really gauge whether you’ve got a deep understanding of what’s going on for them.

Action Steps:

  • Really listen for understanding. Not for what you want to hear, to prove a point or to disagree. (Tip – press your tongue to the back of your teeth to prevent yourself from jumping in – great tip from Rich Litvin)
  • Use the 80/20 rule (20% asking or talking, 80% listening)
  • Ask open questions – What, How, When but NOT Why (which can make people defensive)
  • Repeat back what you’ve heard in their language to gauge your understanding

E – Empathise

This is about trying to empathise or understand the challenge the other person faces. Try to understand the outcome they’d like to see or feel. 

And this ties into your deep listening. You want to get a deep understanding of what they want to achieve. 

Then, with their needs in mind, consider your own. What outcomes do you want? What are the pain points for you, the risks, opportunities and constraints?

Think about some of the language you can use to change the conflict from a relationship conflict to a task conflict. Your goal is to start talking about the thing or the task rather than the person.

What approaches could you use to reduce anger, aggression, and distrust? We know that positive emotions like creativity and curiosity actually open up the neural pathways. And we become much better at solving problems when we have more positive emotions than negative ones that shut our processing down. 

Action Steps:

  • Show that you understand or can empathise with the challenge they face
  • What is the outcome they would like – what would they like to see/hear/feel?
  • What language might you use to change the perspective to a ‘task conflict?’
  • If you’re in the REPAIR of a situation where conflict has arisen or the PREPARE stage where you are purposefully preparing for a potentially conflict-laden encounter, make sure to think about their needs
  • Share how you want to solve the task and the constraints you have – be honest and authentic
  • Reduce feelings of anger or aggression and try to build positive feelings that will help you both be better able to solve the problem.

F – Formulate

This is where we want to move together with the other person or parties to create a solution. 

Make sure you frame the problem. Define what you’re both trying to solve. Problem framing is key at this point in time. 

You’ve come through, you’ve listened, you’ve understood, and you’re empathising, You’re repeating back what they’d like to have. You’re talking about where you both want to get to. 

Now it’s time for you both to agree on what the problem is that you’re trying to solve. 

For example, this might sound something like this:

“We’re both in agreement that we’re trying to solve for the timeline going off track. We both agree on that.” 

Then, try using language like, “How might we solve the issue that the timeline is gone over?” 

This helps you open up the problem space. Remember to keep looping back to the information you gained with Empathise. 

Also, remember – you’re not always going to be able to come to a solution in one session. You may need to have the confidence to ask when you can get together again. It may be necessary to go away and assess the situation and get more information. Or they might need to do some thinking as well. 

So, when it is the right choice, don’t be afraid to say, “Let’s meet again in three days time to talk about X, Y, and Z.”

This is where you’re transitioning the problem from a Relationship Conflict to a Task Conflict so you come together and collaborate on a solution forward.

Action Steps:

  • Work with the other person to create a solution for a way forward
  • Frame the problem – define what it is you are both trying to solve for
  • Use language like “How might we …”
  • Remember to Loop back to the information you gained in the Deep Listening and Empathise stages
  • If you can’t come to a solution in the first discussion, confirm a next step that gives both of you the confidence you are moving things forward in a positive way

Conflict Resolution Is Not A Linear Process

It’s really important to recognise that this is not a linear process.

As you progress through the stages, you’ll become aware of things that are causing challenges or conflicts within you. You might breathe and go into the Consideration phase. And you might start Deep Listening. 

Then you might realise that this deep listening stage that you start heating up again and getting annoyed and you need to go back to Awareness. You’re listening but you’re aware that you’re starting to react in a way that’s going to cause issues. 

When that happens, you need to breathe, think about positive intent, and keep listening. 

Same when you get to the Empathise and Formulate stages. You might need to come back to Consideration and think about positive intent. And listen again before you go into Empathising and Formulating

So make sure that you remain aware of where you are at any point in the process. 

Identify Your Growth Area

When you look at these six areas, where do you think you have the most opportunity to develop your conflict management skills? 

Which one do you think you need to focus on for a period of time?

Remember that most of the impact we can have is around:

  • interrupting our thoughts and feelings about a conflict 
  • recognising conflict is  always going to happen
  • and knowing there are things we can do to change it from a Relationship to a Task Conflict and help others solve it. 

Key Obstacles To Be Aware Of

Some obstacles to be aware of are:

  • negative emotions
  • your attitudes to conflict or the other person
  • and context 

So make sure to allow yourself time to settle your emotion,  assume positive intent, and listen carefully. 

If you need to – because some conflicts are very intense – find someone you trust to debrief with.


  • Conflict is inevitable – especially if we care deeply
  • Our attitude and mindset about conflict is what can make the conversation product or unproductive
  • Conflict will always care some discomfort
  • Putting off conflict and difficult conversations will only make them worse
  • We cannot control others or how others manage conflict
  • We can control OUR beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions in any moment. But it takes awareness and practice to interrupt negative emotions and thoughts.
    Change the conflict from a Relationship Conflict to a Task Conflict

A Final Thought

“When team members trust each other and know that everyone is capable of admitting when they’re wrong, then conflict becomes nothing more than the pursuit of truth or the best possible answer.” ~ Patrick Lencioni

Underlying all of this, if you have an environment and culture of trust, then conflict usually sits on the right-hand side of being more constructive. 

But if there are low levels of trust in a relationship you have with someone else or a project, it’s about how you can fix those levels of trust to be able to have positive conflict.

For assistance with developing constructive conflict management strategies for yourself or your team, get in touch with me here.

Deep active listening skills

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