Project Management

Communicating in Conflict

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Categories: Communication

by Lynda Bourne

One of the realities of project life is every once in a while you are going to become embroiled in a dispute that is emotional and personal. It does not matter how cool and professional you are, you cannot control the other party’s emotions and perceptions — and very often you also need to win the dispute.

In my post Fight or Flight?, I looked at the power of emotions, which can escalate a disagreement into a fight. Now, I want to cover some of the ways to minimize conflict so you can reach a successful outcome. 

When dealing with someone who’s upset and emotional, the first thing to remember is they are not acting rationally and are not interested in optimizing their outcome. It is not uncommon for someone to be far more interested in hurting you than in achieving a mutually acceptable outcome, even if this hurts them as well.

There are a number of tactics you can use to stop the dispute from getting worse. From there, you can hopefully move forward to an outcome you can live with.

Watch What You Say

Always remember: You cannot un-say something or un-send an email. If in doubt: Don’t say or send it! Every communication needs to be crafted from a minimalist viewpoint, conveying nothing more than the necessary information. And you should not respond to provocation. Making statements that can be interpreted as threats will be highly counterproductive.

At the same time, your demeanor needs to remain strong and assertive rather than being too aggressive or too passive.  An aggressive stance simply adds to the fight. If you are too passive, the other side may not feel any need to respect you and break into a bullying mode.

It’s a hard balance to strike. The best practice is to find an impartial mentor who can help you stay calm, collected and review every communication before you send it. The time lag needed to allow the mentor’s review helps you stay in control of your feelings. If you cannot find someone willing to help postpone any action, literally sleep on it — come back to any message in the morning and see if you really need to send it. Very often, a deliberate strategy of doing nothing or saying nothing can break a tit-for-tat cycle of escalation.

Use Time to Your Advantage

When dealing with someone who’s really upset, it may seem like a natural response to offer practical or helpful advice. That will often backfire, however. They will automatically assume you are in the same place they are, and everything you do or say will be interpreted as an attack or a ploy to gain an advantage over them.

The only way around this impasse is to find a third party, who is trusted by the other party, to act as a messenger. But even then, any communication has to be carefully thought through — never in the entire course of human history has anyone ever calmed down and become reasonable just because someone has told them to. You need options that may be rejected in the short term but allow the person ways to move forward once they have calmed down enough to start working toward an outcome. 

Time is a valuable ally. It takes a lot of energy for someone to remain really upset for an extended period of time. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte’s advice to one of his generals: Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.” As much as possible, control the tempo of the dispute and reduce pressure. If you can identify the other person’s hot buttons — the things that will instantly reignite the full intensity of the dispute — look for ways to avoid them. 

Have an Exit Strategy

Regardless of the other party’s approach, you still need to focus on outcomes and your real requirements rather than positional bargaining and winning at all costs. You need to clearly understand what’s in it for you and when to walk away.

As strange as it seems, really bitter disputes often become the center of the other person’s existence and they cannot see anything else. Therefore, having a number of exit strategies is critically important — your time and energy are valuable resources, and there is no point in fighting a dispute if there’s nothing in it for you. 

Ideally, the exit strategy will allow you to walk away and block the other person’s attempts to keep the fight going. If this is impossible, look for ways to lose elegantly — allow the other side to feel like they’ve won while you haven’t lost too badly. It’s far easier to get into a dispute than it is to get out of one once it is in full swing. Smart negotiators always understand their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). In the type of dispute we are discussing in this post, your BATNA should be the trigger for your exit strategy and every move you make should be planned to keep these strategies open.

Remember, when Napoleon invaded Russia, he won every major battle and still lost his Grande Armée’ and the war — the Russians simply reframed the rules of 18th century warfare.

How do you reframe the rules to help manage this type of emotional dispute? 

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: March 22, 2018 05:39 PM | Permalink

Comments (30)

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Good advice from the trenches. Sometimes no matter what the approach is it can be perceived as condescending.

Good point Sante - as hard as it is you need to keep the other person's feelings in mind at every step to avoid causing unnecessary upset - if you want an outcome you need the other party to allow it to occur and if you appear to be condescending you set your objective back. It is a very difficult balancing act.

Lynda - good advice. I think one missing point is position, what are the relative positions of the two people in conflict. Most often the most public conflicts are between peers - with motives often rooted in power/positioning. Top down or bottom up conflicts will most likely be handled behind closed doors and the resulting exist strategy is actually exiting (for the person on the lower end of the food-chain).

Good advice, Lynda and thanks for sharing.

I Agree,Very well written that;
"Smart negotiators always understand their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)".

Thanks, Rashika A

Agree Rashika, and BATNA seems to be the point missed by Meade (above), there is always a power imbalance even between peers, and BATNA is not about being 'right' it's about planning the best alternative for your future.

Some great advice to handle a conflict. I agree that not responding immediately is the key because in the heat of an argument few wrong words can escalate an already stressful situation beyond control. Taking time to think about the repercussions of your response or discussing your response with a neutral person can be very beneficial.

Thanks for sharing, Very useful and insightful

Great advice Lynda,
As we say in my country: "You are the owner of your silences and slave of your words".
As PM, we need to focus on outcomes... avoinding disputes. Sometimes, it's better to breathe deep and to count to 10.

Merci c'est pertinent comme approche de recherche de solutions, les conflits nous apprennent sans cesse comment améliorer et affiner nos réactions avant nos décisions

Very helpful, thank you Lynda!

Great article. When you are talking about not being able to unsay something I had visions of the stories of all the terse emails Lincoln wrote to his commanders in the fields but left unsent in his desk drawer as another more strategic offering was sent once his cooler head prevailed.

Thanks for good article.

Thank you Lynda! I will bookmark this because I often come across as passive, as my nature is to want to nurture. Thanks again.

Nice that!! because, you can resolve step by step!!!

Good advice and never an comfortable situation, thanks for sharing

Lynda it was a good article.
I believe we shall control ourselves when there is a communication conflict with another person and show no re-action.It is better to wait for one day and when relaxed show the re-action with complete concentration because when we are angry ,we can't think and we may make wrong decisions.
Then on the other hand, we shall always try to have trustful relations with everybody but if the other side is not following the same trusts, it is better to limit our communications as much as no damage to the work.

Agree with you Simin, emotion is the enemy of effective negotiation.

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