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Coaching Conflict

Hello everybody and welcome to this edition of The Coaching Conversation. My subject for today is coaching people who have a problem with conflict.



I'll talk about what I mean by conflict in a second, but one of the most important starting points for the coach with a coachee who wants help with managing some conflict, is for the coach not to become embroiled in the conflict, to not allow him or herself to take the side in the conflict that says the coachee is clearly right. Whether the other person is clearly wrong or otherwise, it's not about siding with anybody in the conflict; it's about helping the coachee find the best possible solution to whatever that problem is.

Often when I'm coaching, the conflict is really an inability to get on with a key member of the team. Sometimes it's external - a customer or a key supplier - but that's very rarely the issue. It's more often closer to interpersonal skills; we now call it emotional intelligence. And the truth is it's about making the best of a difficult situation between two people.

It's an inevitable fact of life that colleagues working together will have different personal agendas, and given that those agendas are not necessarily going to be very well aligned, there are going to be points where those agendas cross on. There's going to be conflict, and the way in which those two individuals collaborate at that moment will drive the relationship that generates.

It could be a very positive process, or it could be a very negative process. Often it is a negative process - it's rinse and repeat. It keeps happening. Oftentimes when I'm coaching somebody who has a goal of improving their relationship with a key individual, the first thing I have to do is to help them unpack the reasons for the conflict; Why is it that this person makes the hairs on the back of their neck stand up? What is it about this person's behaviour that they take exception to? When you've identified the causes, you can then start to work on the ‘what ifs’. What if you approached it differently? What if you put yourself in their shoes and understand what the bad drivers are and why they're thinking the way that they are?

The simple truth is most people do not seek conflict. Most people don't get out of bed in the morning and go to work thinking ‘I'm going to have a row with someone’ - It's just isn't the normal state of affairs. So, if there is a conflict, if there is a routine, regular disagreement or inability to find agreement between two people, there will be root causes. Therefore you can explore them in a way that enables you to try to find a compromise, or a workaround, or a win-win if one of those exists.

In a number of coaching models, whether it's positive intelligence or whether it's emotional intelligence, the starting point for this is empathy. As I said, a moment ago, try and understand their perspective on the subject. Give time to think through what is in their mind, that’s important and why. Therefore, that defers to you, because clearly when you've got to that point, you also know what the point of difference is. And you can see if there's a way of bridging the gap or indeed deciding whether it's really important to you in the first place.

Perhaps you're conflicting over things that really you just don't care about. By unpacking the reasons for the conflict, the background to the conflict, you can find new ways to move forward, new ways to tackle potential conflict. That then leads to encouraging the coachee during the course of the program, to try these new ways out and see which works and which don't. And by reliving those experiences through the coaching sessions you can build on what's working and make further progress and further steps.

The conflict itself often feeds on itself. So, if you've got a bad relationship with somebody, guess what? You're going to keep having a bad relationship with someone. If you know that you're going to go into a meeting with someone who's always difficult, guess what? You're going to turn up, expecting it to be difficult, and you're halfway to it is difficult already. So, taking a different view of that person, taking a different stance about that meeting, you will begin the process of stopping this rinse and repeat. And again, even if it is you as the coachee that are making the first steps, taking the first steps to change behaviour; that's not a concession, that's not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of acumen. It's a sign of good intent. It's a sign that you are actually really valuing the good bits of the relationship with that person.

One of the brilliant pieces of learning I've had recently from the positive intelligence program is the concept that even if I don't agree with what someone is saying, at least 10% of what they say is probably right and if I focus on that 10%, as opposed to the 90% I don't agree with, if I focus on that 10% then I'm going to get a foundation on which I can build. If I can find a way of coming together, even if it's only on 10%, there's a much better chance of that relationship being turned on its head and turned into a positive engagement as opposed to a negative one.

Now I'm not pretending that you're going to be best buds. I'm not pretending that you're going to be best friends forever. I don't mean that, but I started with the word conflict. If you can turn conflict into at least a compromise, that's much better. That's a significant step forward.

The other aspect is that there's a knock-on effect. Not only does everybody feel better and we get better outcomes, but the spectators to this conflict are impressed by the way, in which two mature adults have found a way of working together and dealing with what was previously a very negative, very unpleasant place to be.

Now, conflict can come at you as a coach with your coachee; from peers. I can have a problem with people on the same level. That often goes into management skills and how they lead people - there's often a problem with someone managing their boss. And it's because of this lack of understanding or lack of time given to understanding what the other person's agenda is, what the other person's objectives are; ‘I'm way more about your agenda and your objective’ - that's at the root of the disagreement.

Conflict also takes a whole heap of different shapes. It can be just a toe-to-toe disagreement. It can be irritating, low-level continuous criticism, and that could just be in emails or snide remarks. It could be that it only happens when the person's not in the room. They only do it by the written word or on the phone. They can't do it when they're face-to-face with you. So, as the coach, helping the coachee understand the way in which the conflict manifests gives them more insight as to how they might tackle it.

Clearly snide remarks in the meeting need to be challenged. They need to be called out, not in an aggressive way, but in an ‘I didn't really understand what you just said. Could you explain that to me?’. A situation where they won't look you in the eye, but they'll do it over the phone again, it can be called out when it comes to continuously aggressive emails or tones of emails. Just explain to them what that makes you feel. And it may not even have been intentional. They may just be careless in the way in which they write things and bringing it to their attention may change their behaviour. It may not, but it might do.

So there, we have it. As a coach. I regularly see that there is an element of conflict that the coachee wants some help with. It's perfectly normal. It's perfectly regular that this happens, and it starts with the coach not adopting a posture of agreeing or disagreeing with the conflict; with the coachee, absolute straight down the middle unpack what's causing the problem, unpack how it shows up and encourage the coachee to think about it from the other person's perspective, find that 10% is definitely right. Building on that and finding the compromise is finding the bridges to be built that enable the relationship to be rebuilt or constructed in a more positive way.


So, there you have it, the latest edition of The Coaching Conversation. I hope you found it interesting. I hope you found it useful. You can find out more about our coaching programmes at

If you want to reach out you can send us an email at you can book a free 30-minute coaching session at which will give you a really good feel for how coaching can help you.

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