Episode 91 – Caught in the Crossfire – Conflict Management for the PM

Episode #91
Original Air Date: 10.14.2019

36 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Neal Whitten

Do you see conflict as an opportunity? Or, do you actively avoid conflict? Are there any benefits to conflict? During the heat of conflict, how do we overcome emotions and egos? If the team you manage experiences conflict, should you step in or let it resolve itself?

Our guest Neal Whitten, PMP, answers these questions and offers excellent advice. Neal starts by describing the five conflict resolution strategies in the Thomas-Kilmann Model. He recently reviewed over two dozen conflict management models, took the best from those, and crafted his own seven-step approach. Neal wrote a course on the topic for Velociteach, and he hits the highlights in our podcast.

President of the Neal Whitten Group, Neal is a popular speaker, trainer, and consultant, as well as a course author and contributor to Velociteach’s InSite courses. Neal has also been a contributing editor of PMI’s PM Network Magazine for over 15 years, and he previously worked for 23 years at IBM. Soon to be released, “Seven Steps to Successful Conflict Management” is the name of Neal's course on our InSite mobile learning platform.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“We need each other more than ever. There’s so much data, so much information there, you cannot be an expert on everything anymore. We need to work and collaborate with one another. So that’s part of the theme through conflict resolution.”

- Neal Whitten

“...in high-performing teams, you actually want conflict sometimes because what it does is it refines ... the thinking process and helps a team to actually move forward more quickly...”

- Neal Whitten

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The podcast for project managers by project managers. From choosing the best strategy and establishing ground rules, to finally implementing an agreed plan, our guest Neal Whitten describes a thorough and effective approach to managing conflict.

Table of Contents

01:54 … Meet Neal
02:44 … Defining Conflict
03:42 … Indicators of Conflict
05:30 … Sources of Conflict
08:06 … Conflict Resolution Strategy – Thomas Kilmann Model
08:46 … Competing Strategy
09:10 … Collaborating Strategy
09:37 … Compromising Strategy
10:15 … Avoiding Strategy
12:40 … Accommodating Strategy
12:55 … Choosing a Strategy

14:23 … 7 Steps to Conflict Management
16:08 … Step 1: Choose the Strategy
16:17 … Step 2: Establish Ground Rules
16:48 … Step 3: Define the Conflict
18:02 … Step 4: Explore Solutions
18:17 … Step 5: Select best Solution
18:11 … Step 6: Agree to Implementation Plan
18:55 … Step 7: Implement and Verify
19:00 … Collaboration
20:09 … PM’s Role in Conflict Management
21:34 … A Benefit of Conflict
22:36 … Overcoming Emotions and Egos
25:04 … Face to Face is Best
26:53 … Instill Confidence in a Team
29:47 … Conflict Mangement with a Boss
32:11 … How to Escalate
32:59 … “I Will Not…” Post Conflict Statements
34:28 … Get in Touch with Neal
35:17 … Closing

The podcast for project managers by project managers. Conflict management advice for the project manager on resolution strategies and how to implement a conflict management plan.

NEAL WHITTEN: We need each other more than ever.  There’s so much data, so much information there, you cannot be an expert on everything anymore.  We need to work and collaborate with one another.  So that’s part of the theme through conflict resolution.

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  This is our chance to talk as professionals in the field of project management.  We want to address your concerns, your needs, and to give you, not only some tips on bettering your game, but to encourage you in it.  We feature guests who have developed their skills and want to help you develop yours.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and before we get to our guest, I’d just like to personally thank our listeners for the comments we’ve received about our podcasts.  This is how we know if we’re succeeding, how we know if we’re really helping you, so please continue to leave your comments on Google, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or whichever podcast listening app you use.  You can also leave us a message on our website, Velociteach.com, or on social media, we want to hear from you.

And right now I want to hear from Bill Yates because our guest today is somebody that you have known for a while.  And he’s going to be speaking to something that is, well, I guess inevitable in any project manager’s line of work.

BILL YATES:  Conflict is going to happen, when you have two or more people working on something, you’re going to naturally have conflict, and I’m delighted to have Neal Whitten speak into that.  When he and I were talking several months ago about what topic should we address next for project managers, we landed on conflict management.  And I got excited about that right off the top because this is just a part of life, especially in projects.  We have conflict at home, we have it in school, we have it in every phase of life, but absolutely in the workplace.  So addressing that with Neal is going to be a great conversation.

Meet Neal

NICK WALKER:  And of course we’ve had Neal on before.  But let me reintroduce him to our listeners.  President of the Neal Whitten Group, Neal Whitten, PMP, is a course author and contributor to Velociteach InSite’s elearning courses and has also been a contributing editor of PMI’s PM Network Magazine for over 15 years.  Neal previously worked for 23 years at IBM, in both project leader and management positions. 

Neal is a popular speaker, trainer, consultant, mentor, and best-selling author in the areas of leadership and soft skills, project management, and also employee development. And Neal has just completed a new course with our InSite elearning department, the course is titled “Seven Steps to Successful Conflict Management.”  Neal, welcome once again to Manage This.

NEAL WHITTEN:  I am honored to be here.  Thank you so much.

Defining Conflict

NICK WALKER:  All right.  Let’s get right into it.  What all are we talking about when we talk about conflict in the workplace?  Do we have maybe a definition?

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, I do have a definition, but as you would know, conflict is a natural part of the workplace environment, you cannot get away from it.  As a matter of fact, if you work around people consistently, you’re going to run into conflict, and by the end of any given week, you’re probably going to have had that conflict several times a week.

So as far as defining conflict, a definition that I use is it’s a disagreement or disharmony between individuals arising from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities.  And I want to emphasize the “perceived” part because a lot of conflict is because we have a perception. We have our own lens that we’re looking through, and we don’t fully understand the other person’s position and what they’re going through, and consequently the conflict evolves.

Indicators of Conflict

NICK WALKER: So you know I’m sure for some people they maybe either like to maybe deny that there’s conflict going on, or sweep it under the rug, or kind of, let’s look on the bright side.  But there’s probably some indicators out there of what conflict is, and what should we be looking for?

NEAL WHITTEN: So I’d say some obvious indicators of conflict could be open hostility and lack of cooperation and people missing commitments, that sort of thing.  But there’s subtle conflict that’s everywhere, and it can manifest itself as one or more team members demonstrating a change in communication, such as body language, or tone and volume of voice, or being indifferent or low key, but deliberate sniping and gossiping. Those kinds of things mean that there’s also something going on in the back office, and that we need to get to the root of.

BILL YATES:  That’s good, Neal. So the key word of “subtle,” that really resonates with me.  There are times when you walk into a situation, and you see two people at it, I mean, they’re that close to just going physically at each other.  So you’re like, oh, I think I have conflict.  But more often, what I’ve discovered with project teams is what you describe, it is subtle, it’s a different tone of voice.  It’s a lot of times I’ll walk into a room, and there’s not an energy level there that I normally sense, there’s no laughter, there’s no chatting.  You know, there’s no side conversations going on.  And so it may be everybody’s just totally focused on work.

But sometimes, after a while, I think it becomes kind of a warning signal of, hey, wait a minute, there is some underlying conflict here. People are at odds.  They’re quiet.  They’re also kind of out of their normal behavior.  So then we need to get into it and see what is the source, what’s happened?  What did I miss, you know, that kind of thing.  So I think the subtle signs are the ones that, as I grew as a project manager, those I had to become more aware of.  So I think it’ll be interesting to see what we get into with some of these examples.

Sources of Conflict

NICK WALKER:  Is there a common source?  I mean, does it all stem from the same place?

BILL YATES:  Well, Nick, that’s why you’re here in the room with us.


BILL YATES:  This is an intervention.

NICK WALKER:  To instigate the conflict.

BILL YATES:  You’re it, dude.  Yeah, you’re the conflict guy.

NEAL WHITTEN:  I hear people often say that breakdown in communication is a major root cause, but it’s not always that. So I’ll give you some examples of causes of conflict, in my course I have over a dozen of them.  But I’ll just throw a couple out from memory here.  Limited resources.  For example, we all need access to resources, whether it’s time or funds or IT services. Maybe you just need a meeting room or help from colleagues, and when there’s too little resource to satisfy that need, conflict can arise.

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Personality clashes.  We all think a bit differently, sometimes the slightest offense can fester into a more serious conflict. And another one’s unfair treatment.  So we’ve got our own perceptions of what is fair and not fair, and oftentimes without the other party having a clue that we feel like we’ve been wronged.  I’ll tell you one that I really like a cause, and that is psychological needs.  Most people have some desire for power, control, and status recognition, and these desires can also lead to conflict. 

So let me throw one more out that comes to mind, poor implementation of recognition and awards. Most of us feel that we’re not appreciated enough, and so seeing your coworkers being recognized can sometimes leave you with a feeling of being overlooked and can become a breeding ground for resentment and conflict.

And so as you can see from the few examples I’ve given, there’s a lot of causes for conflict, and there’s many more I don’t have. But one thing is certain, conflict is exceptionally pervasive in any work environment.  Even teams that are high-performing teams, there’s still going to be some conflict.  And in fact, in high-performing teams, you actually want conflict sometimes because what it does is it refines the thinking and the thinking process and helps a team to actually move forward more quickly and so forth. 

And when I think of conflict, I actually don’t think of negative, I think of something positive. I actually – so I’m not going to say I look forward to a conflict in a negative way, you know, people yelling or something like that, I wouldn’t ever look forward to that.  I do a lot of travel as a consultant, as well, and when I’m working with people, and there’s two people that are not getting along very well, I actually enjoy working with those two people because my goal is to turn that around into something very positive so that, when they leave the room together, they just built a bond stronger than it was before they walked into that room.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  It’s an opportunity for clarity.

NEAL WHITTEN:  It’s a great opportunity, so I look forward to conflict, and it’s not something we should be running from.

Conflict Resolution Strategy – Thomas Kilmann Model

NICK WALKER:  So when we see these sources of conflict, when we see these things happening, where do we go?  What do we do?  There’s been some research, I understand, on how we actually resolve some of these conflicts.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, there’s something called a “Thomas-Kilmann Model” that is very popular. There’s a few models, but this one particularly is very popular.  And what these two guys have done, Thomas being one and Kilmann being the other one, they identified five strategies that you can choose from when you’re about to engage in a conflict.  In other words, how do you go about resolving that conflict? And so the strategies are competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating.

Competing Strategy

Let me give you an example.  In the competing strategy, it enlists a high degree of assertive behavior with little interest on cooperating with the other party.  And so it’s mostly about winning at almost any cost and with little or no regard to considering opposing points of view.

BILL YATES:  So one person’s going to win, and there’s probably going to be a loser.

NEAL WHITTEN:  There’s going to be a loser, and so you’re the winner at the expense of somebody else.


Collaborating Strategy

NEAL WHITTEN:  Another strategy is collaborating.  This is the most popular one, you want to use this whenever you can.  It enlists a high degree of assertive behavior, along with a high degree of cooperation with the other party, and so the goal is to achieve a win-win outcome. And what I didn’t say, and I probably – is that each of these strategies employ different levels of assertiveness and cooperative behavior.  That’s why I’m talking about those two concepts, assertiveness and cooperative behavior.  So you have collaborating.

Compromising Strategy

And then when you’re running into a conflict with someone, an approach you can take to help resolve it is compromise.  That’s a third strategy, so it enlists a moderate level of both assertive and cooperative behaviors, and both parties are expected to experience a partial win while giving up on some items.  And you may think that compromising is always a good thing to do, but it’s actually not because neither party comes out ahead.  And so in the business world, it’s usually typically more important to have the best business outcome, not that both parties walk away feeling they won something.  It’s what’s best for the business.

Avoiding Strategy

And then there’s the avoiding strategy.  That employs non-assertive and uncooperative behavior, and a party avoids conflict by postponing or disengaging altogether.  And I would consider that lose-lose because, when you just avoid, you walk away, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re not engaging, so it’s going to hurt your reputation. You don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, so you’re giving up all of your opportunity and authority to make something happen.

BILL YATES:  You know, Neal, so personally, that’s one that I have probably the biggest problem with is avoiding, and I mean, this is way personal.  This is – my wife and I have been married 32 years; okay?  And early in our relationship, before we were married, when we were dating, our approach to conflict is very different.  And man, when we were dating, that became very apparent very quickly.  She’s an avoider, and I’m more of a “Let’s deal with this before the sun sets.”  And so something would pop up, and she’s like, “I need time to process that.”  You know, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet.”  I’m like, “Okay, how about in about five minutes?”

So we all live with people that are wired different ways, and I think, you know, for some, that approach of avoiding is kind of their go-to.  We obviously had to accommodate each other.  But I think in the workplace there are those who are very much wired for avoiding.  I think Nick’s already mentioned it.  So that’s one of those strategies.  But we’ll see collaboration is better.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Avoiding is very common, but it’s almost never the right answer. Something that I learned at a very young age is I don’t ever run from conflict. So I decided at a very young age that I would never, ever, ever run from conflict, and I don’t, and I haven’t, and I won’t, and I never do.  So what it’s done for me is this.  It’s helped me to, like when I’m working with people who are higher level than me, or in a more power position, I see them as I see myself. They put their pants on one leg at a time, and they need me as much as I need them, and it’s a symbiotic relationship, and it allows me not to be intimidated.

So I never, ever run from conflict.  That doesn’t mean that I like it because I don’t always like conflict, obviously, I like the opportunity that can come out of conflict.  But I recognize that, by running from conflict, it’s going to hurt my career, it’s going to hurt my ability to make things happen, my reputation and so forth.  And I just don’t do it.  I just flat don’t do it.  I don’t look for a way to run ever.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

Accommodating Strategy

NEAL WHITTEN: The last of the five strategies is called, accommodating. The accommodating strategy elicits a high degree of cooperation with little demonstration of assertiveness. So here you may sacrifice your interest in favor of the relationship.

Choosing a Strategy

NICK WALKER:  Yeah. So I’m the kind of guy who kind of wants to know, okay, what’s the right answer?  Okay?  You’ve got all these conflict strategies, and so I’m looking at them and going, okay, that, no, don’t want to do that.  Don’t want to do that.  Okay.  That might be promising.  Is there a right answer here?

NEAL WHITTEN:  What you want to do is, when you get into the Thomas-Kilmann model, these five strategies, each strategy has a time when it should be engaged.  And when you understand what would cause that, that’s when you want to go to that area.  For example, the avoiding strategy.  It may be the right thing at this moment is to avoid a conflict because you’re not prepared.


NEAL WHITTEN:  Or because you know you’re going to lose, there’s overwhelming odds.  There’s valid reasons for you not to spend the time and energy and expense on it right now, and therefore you avoid it. And that might be the right thing at that particular moment, but in general I keep coming back to collaboration.  So that by far is the most workable and the most contributive strategy.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

NICK WALKER:  So any of these might be sort of a temporary solution, but definitely not a final solution.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Actually, that’s an interesting way to look at it.  The example I just used with avoiding, that would be intended to be temporary, but unfortunately, a lot of people who use the avoiding strategy don’t use it temporarily.


NEAL WHITTEN:  It’s a way of life.


NEAL WHITTEN:  And then they wake up, and they wonder why they didn’t get the promotion that their peer just got, when their peer is not avoiding things and are facing things directly.

7 Steps to Conflict Management

BILL YATES:  Now, I want to shift gears a bit because we’ve talked about some general approaches to managing conflict.  Here’s the beauty.  In the room we have Neal Whitten, and Neal has just spent the last several months researching this topic.  And so one of the things I was excited about was I knew he was going to take a close look at probably two dozen different models for conflict management, and one of the things that’s unique about Neal is he’s able to pick the best from the best.

So Neal, you’ve identified seven steps to deal with conflict, you’ve kind of looked across the board and said, okay, here are different models and things I like about each one.  You’ve accumulated these seven steps, so thank you for doing that.  Now, you address them in the course, but we can certainly highlight them here.  Talk us through how you got there, and let’s take a look at those steps.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, you know, I was hopeful.  I’m an old guy.  Been around a lot.  I’ve had a lot of conflict in my life.  And I tend to think I’m pretty doggone good at dealing with conflict; right?  You would hope I have learned something about it.  So when I went to put this course together, I thought, you know what, Neal, let’s see what else is out there that you haven’t been paying attention to.

And I ran across, as you said, over a couple dozen models.  There’s actually more than that.  But there’s a couple dozen that kind of stand out, and they have anywhere between three and 15 steps to them.  And I couldn’t find any model, although many of them are very respectable, I couldn’t find any model that I feel comfortable in strongly recommending.  So what I did was I actually – I built a little chart.  And I wrote down, what’s the best that each of these models has to offer?  And I created a model based on the best from everybody else.

BILL YATES:  Perfect.

NEAL WHITTEN:  And that’s where I came up with the seven-step conflict management model.

BILL YATES:  Walk us through.  Tell us, what are those seven steps?

Step 1: Choose the Strategy

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, the first one is to choose the conflict management strategy that best serves you.  Remember I talked about those five strategies.


Step 2: Establish Ground Rules

NEAL WHITTEN:  The second thing you want to do is establish what I call “ground rules.”  These are guidelines that, when you walk into a room with somebody, you want to have your head on straight.  You want to respect differences.  Don’t rush to judgment.  Don’t attack problems, you know – I mean, attack problems.  Don’t attack people.


NEAL WHITTEN:  You want to make good relationships a priority.  So that’s the second of these seven steps, establish ground rules so you have the right mindset.  I don’t want you to go into this thing as it’s going to be a battle with an adversary.  I want you to develop a partnership.

Step 3: Define the Conflict

The third step is to define the conflict.  And I recommend that you actually write it down.  I could be a very simple sentence, hopefully.  But if it’s something more, that’s fine.  And then when you and the other party is sitting and looking at that, you’re going to find that in many cases it’s going to get massaged.

BILL YATES:  Okay, yeah.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Because the way you see the conflict and the way they see it may be different.  Because you want to make sure the conflict that you’re going to resolve is the right conflict.

BILL YATES:  Right, right.

NEAL WHITTEN:  And that you have it fully defined.

BILL YATES:  I like it, too, because then you’re basically – you have to write a problem statement.  So I can’t walk into a room with Nick and say, “Dude, we’ve got to talk.  I’ve got conflict I need to resolve with you.  I can’t even tell you, but you have made me so mad.”  You know.  It needs to be, all right, here’s the specific issue.  You know, we were with a…

NICK WALKER:  I sense some hidden hostility.

BILL YATES:  You’re such an easy target.  You’re right here.

NEAL WHITTEN:  That’s right.  That’s right.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it needs to be we were with a client.

NICK WALKER:  I am at arm’s length.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.  We were at the client together, and this happened, and this is something that I don’t want to have to be in that situation again.  You know, your words that you used, or something you showed them.  So I like being specific and having a problem statement that we can look at together and clarify.

NEAL WHITTEN:  And of course that conflict statement should not have any emotion in it.


NICK WALKER:  Yeah, that’s a tough one.

Step 4: Explore Solutions

NEAL WHITTEN:  The fourth of the seven steps is to explore solutions.  I want us to brainstorm and be very creative.  And I’m the kind of guy, I like wild ideas because they often manifest themselves into the best business outcomes.  So that’s the fourth step.  Get a bunch of potential solutions.

Step 5: Select Best Solution

But the fifth step is to select the best solution.  And a simple way, for example, to do that is to have each party pick out their favorite and list the pros and cons of each of those and what’s in it for them and what’s in it for the other party.  I want each party to say what’s in it for the other party, as well.  So now you, at step five, you’ve now selected the best solution.

Step 6: Agree to Implementation Plan

Step six is you agree to the solution’s implementation plan.  And what’s important about that is it’s one thing to say we agree on what we’re going to do.  But if you don’t have a plan for how you’re going to do it, what time you’re going to do it, what date, who’s going to be responsible for what, then it could fall apart very easily. 

Step 7: Implement and Verify

And then the very last step is to implement the solution and verify that it actually did get resolved.


BILL YATES:  Now, one of the things, tying back to the model that we discussed before and now looking at these steps, one thing that’s very obvious to me is, after doing a little bit of homework, this thing becomes collaboration; right?  You define the conflict, then you sit down.  Now Nick and I are in a room, elbow to elbow, looking at this thing, and I’m explaining why I sense this conflict and what I think some options are, getting feedback from him.  So it sounds like it’s heavy collaboration for the majority of these steps.

NEAL WHITTEN:  It is.  We’ve got to work things out together.  And that’s why I keep coming back to, or I was in the beginning, about collaboration’s the most popular part of it.


NEAL WHITTEN:  It forces us to work with each other.


NEAL WHITTEN:  To understand each other, to listen to each other, and ultimately to bond with each other.  We need each other to achieve things.  In the world we live today, it’s so much different than it was a hundred years ago.  It’s not as common anymore for one person to achieve something big. We need each other more than ever.  There’s so much data, so much information there, you cannot be an expert on everything anymore.  We need to work and collaborate with one another.  So that’s part of the theme through conflict resolution.

BILL YATES:  Got it.

PM’s Role in Conflict Management

NICK WALKER:  Neal, so I’ve got to ask you, is this something that the project manager will instigate?  Is he in charge of trying to manage this conflict?  Or is he going to say, okay, you guys, you know, go into a room and just work this out?

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, I’ve got my views on that.  This is debatable.  It isn’t to me.  So my style is people working for me or working with me, I want them to be as self-reliant as possible, I want them to be as independent as possible. I don’t like the concept of micromanaging, nobody wants to be micromanaged, people are exceptionally talented if you just give them the opportunity to be so.  So as a project manager, if I have two people that have a conflict going on, I want them to fix it themselves.



NEAL WHITTEN:  If they need my help because of my power position, because of the resource that I have access to, any support I can give them, of course I want to be there.


NEAL WHITTEN:  If they need me to be a mediator, I will be there, but I don’t believe my job is to give them the solution. I believe my job is to plant seeds, maybe I might lean them in a certain direction, but I want them to have the ownership. I don’t want that to be lost in the equation. So I want them to feel good about themselves and know the value that they bring to the table.  By the way, there are times when you do want to pull rank as a leader, and you do want to insist, and you do dictate what people need to do.  But those are few and far between.

A Benefit of Conflict

BILL YATES:  So along those lines – and I agree with you a hundred percent on that, Neal, I really do. Along those lines, one of the mindset shifts that I think you offer with this is, also, again, conflict is not always bad, it shouldn’t be viewed as something bad.  It is something that is naturally going to happen – if not weekly, daily, if not daily, hourly – on project teams. 

You know, so, practically speaking, the project manager wouldn’t even have time, if they were just always trying to jump in and help put out fires or resolve conflict, you know, okay, what else would they be doing?  So it’s a growth opportunity for team members, and again, getting back to some of the benefits of conflict, it’s a chance for us to understand each other better.

So as a leader of a team, if you have two team members who you see are in conflict, and you encourage them, okay, here’s some steps to walk through as you tackle this conflict, go try it on your own.  I’m here if you need help, so yeah, I really like that attitude.

Overcoming Emotions and Egos

NICK WALKER:  You know, Bill, I’m thinking about my marriage of 34 years, you know, and the conflicts.

BILL YATES:  Okay, all right, you trumped me.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, I had to, yeah, but, you know, so we’ve had two more years than you to try to figure this out, right?  And still not successful.  But I think about, you know, the emotions that get involved in conflicts.


NICK WALKER:  And that’s a big thing that gets in the way, so it obviously must get in the way, too, when you’re dealing with a project team.  How do you overcome some of those egos and emotions that just really rear their ugly heads?

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, there’s a number of things we can do, and so a lot of us in this profession tend to be pretty good at these things.  But one is you want to remain calm throughout dealing with a conflict because, when you’re calm, what it does is it helps you stay in control of your own emotions. 

And you can direct your attention to better reading and interpreting both the verbal and nonverbal communications of the other party.  And I’m a big fan of the empathy thing, and that is work at a imagining you walking in their shoes, and this will help you more quickly connect to their perspective.

Another one comes to mind:  Be gracious.  Respond politely and apologize if appropriate.  I’m a big fan of apologizing.  When people apologize, I think they’re respected more by others when they admit they made a mistake.  And certainly the offending party sees that reach-out.  You can put things behind you more quickly. 

Another one I’ll throw out is you want to allow your counterpart to talk without interruption, this will help open communications between the parties.  So there’s things you can do to kind of settle things down a little bit, the emotional aspect of it.

And, by the way, part of that is also the tone of voice and how calm you need to be.  I have been in certain situations where the conflict has been very heated, and so I’m in the room, and I’ve got a position where maybe a client has asked me, “Neal, I want you to attend all these meetings.  And if you see them going off track or you can help, I want you to jump in.” 

So the first thing I do is I start talking very deliberate, slower, and calmly, and start getting us to get a mindset on we’ve got to remove the emotion from the room and start looking at the issues as objectively as we can. And by focusing on that, we start forgetting all this negative conflict, and so we can start focusing on positivity and moving forward.

Face to Face is Best

BILL YATES:  Neal, so one of the things I feel like I’ve got to bring up, that you’re reminding us of a key fact, which is face-to-face communications is the most effective. You know, so you’ve talked about visual cues that we see, you know, somebody, they have their arms crossed, or they kind of turned away from me as I’m having this conversation with them about conflict. 

You talk about tone of voice, you talk about even, you know, empathy and listening, so active listening, you know, things that we know we need to continue to improve on and get better at.  So my take-away from that is, when I’m dealing in conflict, when I’m going to meet with Nick and talk to him about our area of conflict, best would be face to face, right?

NEAL WHITTEN:  Oh, to me it’s always face to face, some people would want to avoid it, but it would be a mistake.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, okay.  So I shouldn’t Skype him, I shouldn’t IM him or send him an email.  No matter how clear my email is, he should get it, but it’s better to be face to face and take advantage of that.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, it turns out a study’s been conducted, and only 7 percent of what a person communicates is actually the words that they use.  And so the remaining 93 percent is your tone and your body language and your facial expressions. 

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And to me the stakes are highest in areas of conflict.  Right?  So it’s like, if I’m sending out a happy message to a happy team, that’s one thing.  Maybe an email’s okay, but if it’s a specific point of conflict that I have with a team member, then, man, face-to-face communication is the right way to go.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Yeah.  If you send an email to try to resolve a conflict, it’s almost always a bad idea to do that.


NEAL WHITTEN:  Unless you and the other party know each other so well, and there’s no emotion tied into the conflict, then you can probably get away with that, but I’m a huge fan of face to face.

NICK WALKER:  And also things can get personal, you know, people can take things personally, maybe take things out of context.

BILL YATES:  What do you mean by that?

Instill Confidence in a Team

NICK WALKER:  Oh, yeah, exactly.  Thank you for proving my point.  So how do you really just instill the confidence that everybody’s on the same side?  We’re all on the same team here.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, one thing I would say is you want to focus on solutions, not blame, I might be getting off target, but I don’t think so. I give leadership classes, and so I’m a big fan of leaders don’t blame other people, they’re too busy solving problems.  And in the political climate we have today, and you probably didn’t want politics in this, but in the political climate, and I don’t care what party you’re in, it’s common to see people running for office being very quick to blame other people about problems. 

What I would rather hear from them are what their solutions are, I already know what the problems are, I want to know the solutions.

So at any rate, bring this to conflict. Focus on solutions, not blame, and so when a conflict does arise, deal with it quickly to limit its damage. Leaving it alone will almost always allow it to fester and get out of control, and interestingly, so conflict is rarely one person being solely at fault.  And maybe neither party’s at fault, by the way, it could very well be. Also you want to refrain as we talked about using email to address conflict.

And I’ll just throw one other thing out.  You didn’t ask me about it, but conflict management training. So I think that’s very important, I think every organization there should be mandatory conflict management training with all employees.  It doesn’t have to be, you know, to make you an expert mediator, but at least to understand the general concepts and that it’s our job to address conflict as part of our roles and responsibility.

BILL YATES:  Okay.  So I’m going to toss you a bone here, and this is sincere, as a team here at Velociteach, each one of us are going to go through the course that you’re developing with us, and the content is golden.  And we’re going to go through it so that we have this seven-step model in our heads, so that when we have conflict, you know, peer to peer, peer to manager, whatever, whatever the level is, we’ve got a construct, a model, a set of principles that we can walk through and help come to a happy resolution. 

So I agree with you, you know, we try to – Louis has a way of saying we like to eat our own dog food. And so those things that we produce, that we believe in, we want to be behaving that way, too.  So we’re going to do that with your course.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, so this is plugging the course, and I guess you wouldn’t mind me doing that.  But frankly, when an organization is intent on teaching conflict management to the masses, this course has all the basic material you want in a conflict management course. Now, this course is not live, it’s online, but nevertheless, all that basic material is there.

BILL YATES:  Right.  And so it sets up healthy conversations with team members, and many times I look back and go, oh, man, before I got in this big fight, I wish I had known this approach, right? So this is really helpful.

Conflict Managment with a Boss

Neal, so one of the common questions that we get related to conflict management goes like this.  What if I have conflict with my boss or my manager?  So what if the other party has a lot more power or influence than I do, and I have little say in the outcome?  Should I just get over it, or what do I do with this conflict?

NEAL WHITTEN:  So are we talking about the person is your boss itself?

BILL YATES:  Yes.  I’m a team member, so maybe it’s my project manager, or maybe it’s my direct line manager that I’ve got a conflict with.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Okay.  Well, we want to get that corrected.


NEAL WHITTEN:  As soon as we can, but if you have a conflict with your boss, then you want to sit down privately with your boss to try and work it out.  If for some reason your boss is not willing to work it out, or is pulling rank on you, you think unfairly or whatever, then you have to decide how important is this resolution to you. Is it something that you want to give a lot of your energy to?  In which case you’re going to take this over your boss’s head.

BILL YATES:  Escalate.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Escalate, and so you want to be careful when you do that because, even though every company supports you bucking your boss and going over the boss’s head, and they say it won’t hurt you, they’re all lying.  Because bosses are human, and some bosses take it personally, and then they’re going to get even with you.  Will most bosses?  I don’t think so, but some of them will do that. 

So at any rate, you’ve got to decide if you want to take it higher up, if it’s a legal or ethical issue or something that may need a human resource for, then you may take it to them, as well. I’m a big fan of always keeping it in your own family first, so trying to resolve it in your office or your boss’s office without going outside that.

But I will tell you this. So if it’s a conflict with your boss that you feel is harming your career, for example, is harming your ability to produce whatever you said you would commit to do, I can’t take that sitting down.  And my job is to make my boss look good, and so certainly at this moment I’m not doing a very, very good job doing that, apparently.  So I’m going to try very hard to first work it out with my boss, and I would argue that in most cases that will be successful.

I don’t care how difficult you think your boss is or how difficult you are, but by coming together, you will likely come to terms and be able to work it out.  But if you can’t, my style is to take it to higher levels of management and be assertive enough to address it as directly as you can.

BILL YATES:  Follow-up question, so if I decide, okay, I need to escalate this, do I let my manager know?  Or I just kind of go behind and escalate?

NEAL WHITTEN:  There’s different views about that, but my style is to let my manager know.

BILL YATES:  Me, too.

NEAL WHITTEN:  I don’t like doing things behind closed doors.


NEAL WHITTEN: So if there’s two of us that we have a conflict, and neither is a manager, say, my style is still to try and work it out with that other party.  And if I can’t, I will tell that other party I’m going to take it to his or her manager.  How would you like to come with me?


NEAL WHITTEN:  So here again I would tell my boss I’m going to take it to his boss or wherever I’m going, and I would give my boss an opportunity to be there while I’m doing it.  I like doing things openly.  And I think even though it might be painful at the moment for my boss to be there, over time my boss will probably respect the fact that I did it openly and maturely.

 “I Will Not…” Post Conflict Statements

BILL YATES: I want to throw something out, and you guys feel free to comment on this as you wish, that when I think about conflict in my own life and kind of some guidelines that I go by, whether it’s personal or professional, there are four “I will not” statements that I try to deal with after I think we’ve resolved conflict. And so it is, you know, okay, two parties have had conflict, I’ve had conflict with someone, we’ve worked through it, and now we think we’re resolved.  We’re good, so I don’t want to dwell on it.

So one of my statements is “I will not dwell on this conflict.”  “I will not revisit the conflict or use it against the other party.”  “I will not talk to others about our conflict,” so I’m not going to gossip about what Nick and I talked about in confidence, perhaps.  “I will not let this conflict hinder our working relationship.”  So if Nick and I have something, we work through it, then that’s between us, we’re good to go, we’re solid.  I’m not going to gossip about him or throw him under the bus later. So are those okay with you guys?  Does that make sense, those “I will nots”?

NICK WALKER:  I especially like the one of keeping it in confidence.


NICK WALKER:  I think that’s so important.

NEAL WHITTEN:  Yeah.  That may be hard for a lot of people to do.  But I tell you what, I really respect people who can do that, so it’s not just keep a secret, it’s basically being a good role model for others.


NEAL WHITTEN:  I mean, this is the way that you’d want others to treat you, as well.


NEAL WHITTEN:  And just to move on and to not allow it to continue to fester because that’s really what you’re doing, and so it definitely shows the person in a negative light because they’re being professionally immature.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, true, right, right.

Get in Touch with Neal

NICK WALKER:  Neal, there are probably people who are listening who want to know more about this course, want to know more about you, or maybe they have a conflict with you that they want to address, I don’t know, so how could people get in touch with you?

NEAL WHITTEN:  Well, my email address is neal@nealwhittengroup.com.  Neal is N­‑E‑A‑L, and Whitten is W‑H‑I‑T‑T‑E‑N, neal@nealwhittengroup.com.  But probably an easier way is just to go to Velociteach, and they could point you to me.

NICK WALKER:  All right.

NEAL WHITTEN:  I appreciate it.

NICK WALKER:  Well, we appreciate you being here with us again, Neal, thank you so much for taking the time, and Bill, thank you for your expertise, as well.  And I guess we’ll be meeting in a conference room later to work something out.

BILL YATES:  Neal’s going to be our mediator.

NEAL WHITTEN:  I’d love to.  I’d love to.

BILL YATES:  Let’s do it.

NICK WALKER:  Thanks again, Neal.


NICK WALKER:  Okay.  A reminder now to our listeners, as you may know by now, there is an extra benefit you receive from these podcasts.  You’re all looking to earn PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications, and so by listening to this podcast, you’re just one step from putting some free ones in your pocket.  To claim your PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click right through the steps.

That’s it for this episode of Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on November 5th for our next edition.  So until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

4 responses to “Episode 91 – Caught in the Crossfire – Conflict Management for the PM”

  1. Megan says:

    Great topic of discussion! And a good reference to review periodically. There’s a lot of value in reviewing conflict management.

  2. Delya says:

    Very informative podcast.
    Thanks a lot,Dear Team!

  3. Jayesh says:

    Nice discussion. Very important topic for any project manager. Candid discussion. Kudos!

  4. Neal is one of the wisest voices I’ve EVER heard in my career. Superb podcast – AGAIN.

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