Getting comfortable with conflict
This article is for anyone who wants (or needs) to elevate their conflict game
Conflict is not a bad thing. It is integral to any group creative process, and part of how people who disagree find alignment. Since it happens all the time, you are better off to embrace it, to get good at it rather than to be afraid.
A friend of mine who has won medals in the actual Olympics and built a successful business is struggling with customer conflict.
How could they be struggling with conflict?!
It turns out that no matter your skill level, experience, or style, conflict can be an issue.
After talking to hundreds (thousands?¹) of escalated customers, supporting people through tough situations with tough/sad/angry/mean customers, dating my wife for 19 years, and thinking about this a lot, I’ve learned a thing or two about conflict management. This article provides tips and tricks from Apple Retail, Korn Ferry/Lominger For Your Improvement and my own experience for anyone who wants (or needs) to elevate their conflict game.
While nothing can replace the experience of talking to a few metric tons of upset humans, these hacks will get you on the way faster.
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During the 13 or so years I led at Apple Retail, I was lucky to work every iPhone launch until iPhone X, lead the busiest Genius Bar in Canada out of a desperate place², and so much more (remember how popular the iPod nano was?). Basically, my teams and I have talked to a lot of frustrated/upset/irrational/let down/disappointed people.
And I’ve had to support, work with, or exit many employees (including leaders) who needed coaching, performance improvement, someone to share terrible news with, and so on.
A lot of people have yelled or been frustrated at or around me and my teams.
Nice things happened, too. The vast majority of customers were awesome. We met a ton of amazing, thankful customers. The vast majority of people I worked with were awesome; a number are lifelong friends, and they all helped me to grow.
This article isn’t about them.
This article walks through three stages of resolving a conflict. If you prefer bite-sized, each stage is available as its own 3-minute write-up.
- Where to start: Goals/How to think before the interaction
- Deescalate the situation: Hacks during the conversation
- Moving to a resolution: Balance ownership and provide options
As an alternative to this article, you can watch this documentary. It’s about horses but is probably one of the most useful things about human interactions I’ve seen (and trust me, I’ve been through a lot of leadership and development training).
There are three things to do in a conflict
- Agree about the subject so you can talk about the problem instead of arguing
A conflict is just two people coming together to solve a problem. Step one is to agree on the problem. Step two is to negotiate an agreed solution. Using my past life as an example. If the problem is that the iPhone is broken/not working, let’s talk about the phone. If the problem is the rest of the baggage (it should work; it should never have broken; I live far away), then we are much less likely to get a resolution.
- Win by resolving the conflict, not by proving your point
You will probably never prove your point and even if you do, what will that accomplish? When is the last time you changed someone’s opinion? But if you don’t care about being right, you absolutely can resolve, or at least end, the conflict… which ironically might lead to a changed opinion.
- Be curious and listen
In any conflict, listening to the other side is key. This helps to reveal the core reasons there is conflict (required to align). Being curious will also give you the information you need to build a path to deescalation, resolution, or in a worst-case scenario, understand there is not a resolution so you can end and walk away sooner.
- You are only going into an argument if you make it one. Try not to decide on the outcome until you’ve heard from the other person. Consider if “they” are right, remember the outcome matters, you being right doesn’t.
- If you are conflict shy, tired, or having a rough day, take a breath and find some zen. Remember, it’s all good. Later you get to see your friends and family. This moment needs your full attention, but most of today is not this moment.
- If appropriate (ie. you’re not being sandbagged) get the core facts first. It is helpful (but not 100% necessary) to have an understanding of the situation before diving in.
- Remember, a conflict is an opportunity to help³. Once you have solved the problem, things will probably be better for everyone involved.
- Go do it. The before is always the worst part. Being yelled at or making someone cry isn’t nice either, but it ends quickly and there are ways to control the situation.
Deescalation ensures that everyone in the conflict can think better. When we are upset we are in a fight or flight state. Literally pumping unhelpful things like adrenoline and cortisol into our brains. What we need is oxygen. Deescalating gives space for breath, which brings oxygen, which allows for thinking and further helps things to calm down.
The key to deescalation is helping the person who is upset back to normal-ville. The secondary objective is showing your audience (co-workers, other customers, your future self) how incredibly reasonable and helpful you are in the face of this craziness. Use any or all of these hacks throughout the conversation, while you work to a resolution.
- Use your big kid words
- Address the emotion
- Look/behave as though you care
- Avoid stop word instead talk about what you CAN do
- Calmly lower your tone (and use it to lower theirs)
- Remember your other audience
Use your big kid words
Kill ’em with kindness. Be polite. Say please and thank you. Even if they are in an argument, you are not. You are helping them to get out of an argument by solving a problem.
This doesn’t mean you have to take their crap. If they are using inappropriate language tell them. Everyone is going to be polite or the conversation will end.
Use this magic phrase
It is important to address their emotion early in the conversation. You can start almost every one of these interactions by listening then saying
“that sounds frustrating”
These three words are always true and do three things really well.
- They acknowledge the emotion and truth the person is feeling. Isn’t it nice to feel seen?
- They do not place any blame on either party. They simply acknowledge this other person’s situation without saying it is your fault.
- You are already agreeing about something!
Look and behave as though you care
Ideally you feel empathy or sympathy for the person you are talking to. These are different things, but in terms of you being helpful either will work(most of the time).
Sometimes you can’t feel either. Which is fine. Caring isn’t a requirement. Acting like you care is. The person might be a jerk, a dummy, or way out to lunch, but you still have to help. In those cases trying being fascinated. How does this person live in the world? How do they think? What is important to them?
Being fascinated will make you curious enough to help the jerk, and keep your face from giving you away.
Avoid STOP words, instead say what you CAN do
You can have a whole conversation with out saying: “but”, “no’, “I understand” and more. These words immediately stop converastion. They are queues to listen for disagreement. Since you are trying to find agreement they are only unhelpful.
Instead, switch “but” to “and” and speak about what you can do. Here is a this short list of words iy can just stop using.
“No, I can’t book you this week, but you could have booked next month yourself.”
“That sounds frustrating. It looks like this week is full. Let’s see what we can figure out.”
What you can’t do doesn’t matter, and just adds a whole bunch of disagreement and stop words (queues for arguments) to the conversation. Be firm, and clear in a helpful way. Sometimes this involves a bit of theatre.
“The next appointment I have is in a month, which sounds further than you were looking.”
Is better than:
“I can’t book you this week because we don’t have any appointments so we can’t fit you in. I wish I could help, but I can’t.”
Control your tone (and use it to control theirs)
If they are speaking loudly, don’t.
Speak calmly and at a lower volume than the upset person. Keep doing this until they lower their voice to a regular, subdued level. Yelling “calm down” at someone has never worked.
If you need to, tell them again they they seem really frustrated and speaking very loudly. Remind them you are here to help.
If your job gets you into these situations a lot (ie. you work in retail) this is a fun game to play.
Think about your other audience
You have at least two other audiences, often you have four. Remembering this can help with the direction of the conversation.
Future you and future them
We remember bad things more than good ones so the minimum two audiences always present in any interaction are future you, and future them.
The worse this conversation is (the worse you behave in the interaction) the longer you will hold that negative memory. The same goes for the person on the other side, who (in most cases) you will want to return as a customer, remain an employee, be a customer once they are not an employee, continue to be your wife, and so on.
This moment is a moment, it is not the end of all time. So remember future you and future them. Decide how you want everyone involved to reflect on this moment then act accordingly.
This does not mean rolling over and giving them whatever they want. Future you will also have to deal with that. We make our own worst monsters. It just means remembering how you want to feel, them to feel, and if you will be good with the promises you are (or aren’t) making.
You other audiences
You often you have two or three other audiences: your employees/team, other customers (other other people from the same customer if the customer is company), and your boss (or at least you may have to share with your boss later, so they are a future audience).
What is it you want to present to those audiences?
You probably want your employees to see this is a safe place to work and you’ve got their backs. In these conversations you are a shield for your team. Take the bullets and show them you can rise above, that you won’t stand for poorly behaved customers, so they eel supported and not under-cut by their boss and employer.
This doesn’t mean your team did everything right. It does mean if they screwed up you have their backs. Don’t throw them under the bus. If they screwed up acknowledge the error, say you will follow up, and move on to resolve. You can use the conversation to lead by example, and to learn enough to help correct future mistakes.
Most customers are just fine. 90% of the time (not statistically valid) we make them bad (also true of employees).
If there are other customers around you want them to be on your side, not the other person’s. The good news here is that if you deescalate, listen, and genuinely work to a resolution they probably will be. This is especially important if the person you are talking with is unreasonable, loud, or whatever. There may be a point where you decide they are a lost cause, but all the people watching and listening are not. So put on a show you can be proud of.
When you get this right customers will tell you how good you are, how unreasonable the other customer was/is, and become even more loyal customers themsevles. Even if you lose the jerk as a customer (which might be great!) you still get a win with everyone else.
In a big deal conflict things may go to your boss. This might be word of mouth, a report, or further escalation. In any situation you want it to be clear that you nailed this. You will not nail it by getting sucked into an argument.
Use questions to align on the issue and balance ownership
A lot of conflict places blame from one party to the other. “It’s your business so it’s your fault I can’t get the appointment I want!” This is unhelpful, but it’s also the customer’s perception so it’s what you get to deal with.If your business did screw up then just take ownership and move on.
Most of the time these situations start out with blame, but the resolution will require blame to be removed. Move forward by asking questions to remind the grown up you are talking with that they have agency. In most situations they can and will take some level of ownership for the situation. Do this gently, and firmly. This is where being curious, demonstrating empathy/sympathy/fascination, and avoiding stop words helps.
“That sounds frustrating. I really want to help. I think I have most of the facts. To be sure and so we can figure this out, can I ask a few questions?”
Then you ask about all the things they could have (but probably haven’t) done to fix their own problem. It is helpful for the upset person to say these things aloud so that they can hear from themselves that they do have some amount of agency, of control.
A signficant amount of conflict starts because someone feels like they have no control over their situation. Help them see that they do, they just might not be exerting it.
Questions could be:
“This appointment thing sounds frustrating. So we can look at all our options can I ask if your priority is getting the appointment you want or if it is solving issue x (that you book for)? I ask because we might have different options depending on what is most important to you.”
If the issue is appointments then:
“So we can help, tell me about how you approach booking appointments now.”
“This seems to be an ongoing issue. When you book, do you book follow ups at the same time?”
But probably the issue is getting the problem that they book appointments for fixed. So then ask questions about that.
“Okay, that’s good to hear. If what is most important is solving X, then there are definitely a few options that we can look at together.”
And so on. Obviously the questions vary based on the situation.
Note that we’re doing this together now! Yay! You and me person who was yelling at me. We’re solving this together!
The idea is not to call the person out, it is for both sides to understand what is going on. Be gentle with this. Do not throw things in their face.
Be curious to get onside so you can eliminate options they have already tried, identify gaps in service, and so on. In the course of that you slowly turn the mirror to face them so they can see themselves clearly. Of course, you have to be ready for the mirror to turn the other way. There is the chance that the problem is you or your company so… be open.
Again getting it right, matters more than being right.
Provide more than two options
Do not solve the problem. Give multiple options and let them choose.
Now that you are aligned on the problem, emotions are lowered, and you’re focused on working together to solve the problem, you likely know the resolution. This is your business, your life, you know the answers!
Do. Not. Solve. The. Problem.
Solving the problem early is just another way of proving that you are right.
When you solve the problem early you are removing choice from the other person, which is generally the core of the issue. You just spent all this time helping them to see and feel they do have choice, don’t take it away now!
Solve the problem together. As the expert you can provide multiple choices, but they will ultimately need to choose. Maybe they will pick a few of your options, maybe they will surprise you, who knows.
For this to work you need to provide a minimum of three choices. The context of more than two choices completely changes how options are perceived. Having two options sucks, it is being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Interestingly, it turns out that most humans are pretty okay with being stuck between a rock, a hard place, and a crushing weight. Choosing between a rock, hard place, crushing weight, terrible drop, and room full of dragons feels even better because… well because choice!
Options frame the resolution. This is part of the magic trick.
The good news is that you can include terrible and crazy options. Really sticking to the same example, if the issue is that someone can’t get the appointment they want then some options are:
- Book a later appointment (probably what you started with).
- Book a later appointment and book a couple follow ups at the same time, just in case.
- Do not book anything. Maybe they can solve the problem on their own or live with it.
- Go to a different service provider.
- Get on a cancellation list.
- Read an article on the internet that you recommend, do what that says.
- Ask a friend for help.
- Some combination of the above.
- Other options more appropriate to your appointment situation.
- And maybe you just include 3 that make sense for your business.
The point is that if we are talking about all of these things then the customer can choose what works for them. The answer is probably obvious, but that’s not the point.
In a conflict you’re solving two things:
- A person’s emotional state
- The problem you align on
¹I’m not sure how many but if I talked to 2 upset customers a day — recognizing that some days I’d talk to only happy customers and other days… I’d talk to more than 2- then I’’ve talked to 3380 upset customers. And this leaves out upset staff, terminating employees, and the rest of life; where possibly I have had at least one argument with my wife (we’ve been dating for 19 years).
²I was lucky to lead the busiest Genius Bar in Canada (Eaton Centre) before our booking system could handle the volume (2006?). A time when we didn’t have enough people to fix the computers coming in, let alone enough appointments to talk to all the people, and customers had no where else to go for help. Later, (amongst other things) I got to lead leaders leading their own Genius bars during various recalls, iPhone screen issues, and more. Most of this was before AppleCare+ so if your new $1000 phone was broken, we were telling you to pay full price for a new one.
³At Apple we litteraly had a card (for years physical, later an iOS wallet card) that included the line “A cusotmer problem is an opportunity to shine”, and we meant it. Many of our happiest customers were the ones who had a problem, then got help fixing it. One of my favourite customer comments included the line: “As if things couldn’t get any better we had a problem” then goes on to describe the extent the store team went to solve the issue and the positive emotional impact that had. The people I worked with truly went above and beyond, trying to figure out each and every time how to help.