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108. Handling Conflict with Confidence

Leaders, stop avoiding conflict and learn to transform it into growth.

"Don't let your discomfort in having difficult conversations compel other people to live in pain." - Carol Bowser

Carol Bowser is the president of Conflict Management Strategies, helping businesses and organizations of all sizes address and prevent workplace conflict. She was named one of the top three people on LinkedIn to Follow for conflict resolution.

Carol Bowser had a dream of becoming a lawyer to learn about rights and responsibilities in the workplace. After practicing law, she found a passion for conflict management and helping people solve their own problems. Carol realized that conflict resolution is a skill that is not taught but can be a superpower if learned and practiced. She works with businesses of all sizes to address and prevent workplace conflict, teaching leaders how to address conflict and set the tone of their organizations while encouraging equitable participation. She stresses the importance of recognizing that difficult conversations don't have to be comfortable, but need to be had anyway, and that conflict is not a one-time fix but a relationship to be managed. Through her work, Carol strives to help people understand their values, assumptions, and expectations and create a safe space for them to communicate.

In this episode, you will learn the following:

  1. How and why should leaders prepare for and facilitate difficult conversations?

  2. How can leaders create equitable participation in meetings, especially when having difficult team conversations?

  3. What is the root cause of most workplace conflict?

Resources shared:

  • Unlock the bonus clip with Carol to hear about how to spot and address conflict in a virtual workplace here

  • Get a Conflict Tip of the Day here on Carol's Website

  • Follow Carol on LinkedIn here

  • Get past your leadership overwhelm with Teri. Explore 1-1 Coaching Options here

About Carol:

Carol Bowser

Carol Bowser, J.D is a workplace conflict expert. After practicing Employment Law for several years, Carol founded Conflict Management Strategies when she realized a lawsuit can’t deliver the level of resolution and satisfaction that is gained when people are actively involved in creating solutions to their workplace conflict.

Carol’s clients come with a wide range of employers because conflict is universal across all industries and types of organizations. Where there are people, there is conflict. The key is to help people recognize and address conflict before it damages working relationships and creates organizational drag. In her over 20 years of experience, she has discovered some universal themes about workplace conflict and loves to share how people at all levels can strengthen their conflict resolution muscles.


While it's not perfect, we offer this transcription by Capsho for those who prefer to read or who are hearing impaired.

Carol Bowser

Don't let your discomfort in having difficult conversations compel other people to live in pain.

Teri Schmidt 00:00:08 Yikes. That statement by today's guest, Carol Bowser hit me like a punch to my gut. You see, I like to think that I'm okay with handling conflict, but if I'm honest, there are times in my life that I've been completely conflict avoidant. Can you relate? The good news is that Carol is an expert in it. In fact, she spends her days supporting leaders just like you in strengthening their conflict resolution muscles. She was even named one of the top three people on LinkedIn to Follow for conflict resolution. We had a great conversation about the root cause of most workplace conflict, how to prepare for a difficult conversation, and how to continue to engage in challenging conversations so that you can transform workplace drag into generative productivity. And we even recorded a bonus clip about how to spot and address conflict in a remote work environment. You can grab that for free at the link in the show notes. So, are you ready to get better at something that most of us dislike doing? Let's go. I'm Teri Schmidt, founder of Stronger to Serve coaching and team building. And this is the Stronger to Serve serve, Podcast.

Carol Bowser 00:01:40 Carol Bowser here, president of Conflict Management Strategies, where we help businesses and organizations of all sizes either address or prevent workplace conflict.

Teri Schmidt 00:01:51 So how does and why does someone choose to spend all of their time dealing with something that most of us would like to avoid?

Carol Bowser 00:02:01 Well, as any type of origin story, where you think you start and where you wanted to go, maybe it's not always where you wanted to go. So I decided that I wanted to go to law school to learn about rights and responsibilities in the employment relationship. I thought this idea of personal responsibility of my life is something of my creation. And there are some things I don't have control over, but there may be things that I have influence over and certainly how I perceive things, how I step in and advocate for myself or talk about what's important or negotiate or problem solve or collaborate. And the law really isn't about that. We call it the justice system, but it's actually a dispute resolution system. And I liked the idea of mediating, and I wanted to be able to mediate what I thought were going to be legal disputes. And the more I found out about that, and I practiced law for a while, I really liked this idea of helping people solve their own problems. And through the mediation process, and then also through training and facilitating and coaching and speaking, I found that then I love gathering information and I love learning, and I want to be able to pass those learnings on. And because I go to public, private, family owned, medical, not for profit construction, manufacturing, professional services and higher education, and K through twelve education as well, I'm all over the place. And so I can even hear from the places who were the best places to work. Most sought after employers, they still have kind of some common and universal themes. So I'm constantly learning from my clients and keeping confidences. I want to be able to share learnings and insights so that way people can be a little bit more engaged and proactive. Because I always say conflict resolution skills are the skills that nobody taught you. But if we do learn them and do them consistently, deliberately, obviously and tenaciously, that's a superpower. And the more people exercising, that can really change the world. One of the things I tell leaders is how you address conflict or don't you absolutely set the tone and maybe even the unspoken culture of the organization.

Teri Schmidt 00:04:20 Well, that's exciting. Not only can we increase our confidence in handling difficult conversations, but we can use those skills to change the world. Now, if you're new to your role, you may be thinking, I'd really just like to learn how to handle this conflict that has already either erupted or is about to erupt on my new team. You might not be worried at this point about using those skills to change the world, but if you're listening to this podcast, you do have a longer term desire to make your workplace more compassionate and just through your leadership. So changing the world may seem a little lofty to you right now, but just know that by effectively handling that one conflict in front of you, instead of ignoring it, you are taking the first steps toward making your workplace more compassionate and just so. I asked Carol for an example of how she had helped teams work through conflict so that we could glean some lessons from them. And the first one yielded two lessons.

Carol Bowser 00:05:24 I was working with our entire leadership team at a retreat. They were trying to figure out what was going on. And it was a vice president and kind of one of his directors and both of them really loved sparring like ideas going back and forth. And they were really comfortable with it. They got energy from it. They thought it was really generative. They thought it was getting stuff out in the table and so they were energized by it. But then I look around the table, like there's heads down there's looking around. All of a sudden everyone's writing notes or just pushing back from the table. And I just paused and I said, okay, you're comfortable with this? How is everyone else feeling? And I would say, Is anybody else comfortable with this? And they would say no, because it was just this dynamic where it felt very competitive and again, kind of sparring back and forth. So no one was going to tell the senior leaders that this is your approach, is unproductive and making the team hugely uncomfortable, just being aware of that positional power. Everybody knows that you have it and their behavior is likely going to change when you're in the room.

Teri Schmidt 00:06:34 So the two lessons number one, in almost all organizations, the fact that you're in a leadership role will give you positional power. And number two, as the default facilitator in the room, to effectively navigate a difficult conversation, you need to reflect on, observe and adjust to others comfort levels with conflict. So part of your preparation is to acknowledge the two contextual factors that are going to affect the conversation. But what do we do about those factors? I asked Carol what we as leaders can do to make the conversation more equitable for those who don't have positional power in the room.

Carol Bowser 00:07:21 So one of the things as a mediator and as a former mediator with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on a contract basis, I got a chance to see a lot of different things go on. And people talk about what their expectations and what their experiences were. And as part of my particular brand of mediation training, I was always looking for how are people valuing and evaluating the process of meetings? And I always go to when I was the role of a mediator or a facilitator or coach or even a podcast guest, I'm looking at, does each person feel as though they have an equitable participation in the process? I'm going to distinguish equitable from equal. Equal is everybody gets the exact same airtime, but equitable is do people feel that they were given the time and the process supports them to have the opportunity to participate to the level that they feel they need to participate, that their voice was heard? So that's one of the things to think about for leaders is like, not just are we having meetings, but how are we structuring meetings? So that way people have equitable participation. Now, some people may say, Carol, have you been to some of our meetings where it's like one person is going to take 25 minutes of airtime, they're going all over the place, and we're trying to get to the point. Then there's other people who they are so succinct and value efficiency so much that they will go to the point immediately. So all of a sudden, you've got these different people and different levels of comfort. So one of the things for leaders is like, well, how well are you noticing how people participate? Are you noticing there seems to be a level of engagement? If we were in a room, you would see is their eye contact literally, are they leaning forward? Are they asking questions? Is there eye contact or on their phones or things like that? And then also it's, what kind of meeting guidelines are you establishing? So that way, the people who can think on their feet and spout out stuff, the extroverts, the people who love talking like me, where I will take up the air time, and if there's any lull in the conversation, I'm going to jump right in. Well, that's going to roll over the people who need more time and space to be able to gather their thoughts, for the people who need time and space to evaluate you as a leader, to determine is it actually safe to talk about what it's going to be. And it may not be you the leader that they're concerned about, but are they concerned that other people are going to have a meeting after the meeting about their participation or something that it went? So I think about what kind of protocols are you doing in the meeting? And again, if you're the senior leader, it's your meeting. So how are you acting like a mediator in that? I always said a mediator is a guide and a guardian of a process where people can talk about things that are important to them. I just would love for the leaders to stop and think about what is it about our process, either spoken or unspoken, that is encouraging and what am I doing to actually bring people forward for equitable participation? And that might be like, hey, I think we've got your point, or it might be, I'd like to hear some differing perspectives, or what does Finance think about this? What is HR think about this? So you are constantly inviting people into the conversation. So I think that from a leader. Think of yourself as it is your meeting, and you sometimes need to be a guiding guardian and sometimes you need to be a referee and call a yellow flag or a red flag when you see inappropriate things going on, or call out behaviors that really aren't supporting that micro culture that you want to create.

Teri Schmidt 00:11:24 Wow, lots of great points there. Just like we talked about way back in episode 21 when I shared tips for handling the difficult conversations that we as leaders must have. Preparation and process are key. First, acknowledge your positional power and think through how to structure the meaning so that everyone feels like they have an appropriate opportunity to have their voice heard. Notice we're not talking about equal. I've been in meetings where time limits are set for each speaker, and although that can help people to be more concise, it's not always the best tactic for having a productive conversation. One strategy that I've used is posing the question and giving people a set time to think about it and write down their thoughts on a post it note. Then we post them somewhere in the room and have discussion if everyone feels comfortable. That gives those who might be more introverted time to reflect and can help those who tend to think out loud and be more verbose to be more concise with their ideas while still having the opportunity to talk them through. Also suggests that you have an open conversation about what it means to have an equitable conversation on your team and to establish some meeting norms together before you get into a situation where you have to have a difficult conversation. Next, when you're in the meeting, be the guardian of the process. Carol gave some phrases that you can use, like, I'd like to hear some differing perspectives, or We've got your point, or what does finance or any other department think about this? Also, as part of Guardian of the Process, observe the behaviors that we talked about before. What is everyone's body language telling you? Finally, don't be afraid to call out behaviors that aren't aligned with the process that you all decided on earlier. These are great steps for how to lead through those difficult conversations. But none of these work if people prefer just to avoid the conflict at all costs. So I thought it was important to talk about the very real fears that may be behind conflict avoidance and the resulting risk that's introduced into our teams. I thought that would give us a chance to talk about what we need to do as leaders to get past the fears to a place where we don't avoid conflict and instead transform it into growth.

Carol Bowser 00:13:57 Because a lot of people in the US. In particular our job, is how we get access to health insurance, and that's access to healthcare. It's how we put food on our table. It's how we pay for the roof over our head. And people will endure a lot of pain if they feel that that is threatened in any way, even if it's an existential threat like people say, well, there's no reason to feel there's big retaliation. I know, but there's you know, we don't want to upset the people who have control over our future, and we don't want to be the annoying one. And so we may just be a go along, get along person to be able to do that. And so the leadership side of that is you may be uncomfortable having this conversation. Maybe you don't want to hurt people's feelings, or having that difficult conversation gets lost in other competing priorities, and the result is people are saying in points of pain and discomfort and ambiguity, and that is you creating your reputation as a leader.

Teri Schmidt 00:14:57 Well, that got me. Yes, it's important to understand the reason that people may not want to enter into conflict. But while that decision to avoid the conflict may be saving us pain, in the short run, it could be affecting our entire leadership journey. So I asked Carol for the skill we should start working on to be less conflict avoidant. But she argued smartly that it's more important to start with these three insights that have less to do with skill and more to do with mindset.

Carol Bowser 00:15:28 The insight is you can be absolutely uncomfortable having the conversation. You can have it anyway. And the second layer of that insight is I don't think anybody becomes completely comfortable because it's a difficult conversation, because there's something important at stake it could be a reputation. It could be like, I'm concerned about how this other person is going to react. I do this for a living. I still get nervous because there's something at stake there. And I try to prepare for the conversations, but I think it is a fallacy that people are 100% comfortable with the conversations all the time and so maybe just kind of get over that and have the conversation anyway. The second point is I don't think a lot of these conversations are one and done. We just think we're going to have a one and done. It is not a problem to be fixed. It is a relationship to be managed. So I think a lot of it, if it's a conflict because we think it's a one and done and we need to lay down the law or we need to vent and just dump and frame a complaint or someone just thinking about it. It's a relationship to be managed, and we may need to give people time and space to be able to process it. But being able as a leader first, to recognize you don't have to be completely comfortable to recognize you might be uncomfortable because you're concerned that you're going to get a big emotional reaction. So the third is thinking about, well, what's potentially at stake for you and for this person of why it's a big deal. I think framing it like that and you can start the conversation of I'm concerned about this. It's a bit of a deal for me. It's an attention grabber. And also I'm spending a bit of time on this. I think it might be of concern to you, maybe for different reasons than a concern for me, but let me kind of frame it up and I'd like to hear about what the concern is for you. And then I'll also kind of share what the concern is for me. So it's more of a conversation versus a compelling versus a dump on anything like that. And again, for the leaders who serve, I think an underlying tenant is how well do we know our people? And can even in that we create an equitable process where people can kind of gather their thoughts and talk about what is important.

Teri Schmidt 00:17:48 So number one, you'll be uncomfortable. Number two, it's not one and done. And number three, think about what's at stake for you and for the others in the room. Based on people's personality, values and strengths, you may have to structure the conversation differently to make sure they feel heard. And hopefully you know your people well enough to have a sense of how you can do that. And then even in the conversation, make sure you're really listening for what's at stake for the other person and what's important to them so that you can have the conversation more effectively. Okay, so we've talked about ways to think about and prepare for conflict. But with Carol's experience in many different workplaces. I wanted to get her thoughts on what the root cause of most workplace conflict is.

Carol Bowser 00:18:37 It's all of these unmet expectations, and those are built on what are often unarticulated assumptions. Assumptions of what it is to be a good company or a good coworker. Assumptions that are never articulated, never tested. And those are probably based on your initial work experiences, other jobs or bosses that you've had, or maybe even how you were raised about what it is. You will start uncovering those unarticulated assumptions if you're hearing complaints, if you are hearing praise, if you're hearing little kind of indirect comments about things, those are ways that people bring forward these assumptions. And all of that at its core is based on people's core values. From the values come the assumptions, come the expectations.

Teri Schmidt 00:19:28 I swear I didn't pay her to say that. Yet another reason, like we talked about on the last episode, that it's important to understand our values as leaders and to help those we lead understand theirs. I wanted to hear a story about how these assumptions that Carol talked about played out in a real life conflict and how Carol helped the team work through it.

Carol Bowser 00:19:52 One that comes to mind was there were it was a medical practice and two of the primary physicians were just not getting along at all. And then that cascades down into front office, back office, patient care. You've got the manager, the practice, and the owner of the practice going, this is not good. And everyone's kind of either trying to avoid it, walking on eggshells, kind of getting sucked into it, and they're like, this is not what we want. It's creating coalition building. We need these folks to be working along. And so we did a training with the idea of trying to get people to start talking to each other. And it was a training that I have about what nobody told you about workplace communication, but everybody expects you to know. And so it was fun, it was engaging because people aren't talking about the little stuff in small ways, they're not going to talk about the big stuff. And at the end of the training, one of the physicians turned to the other and said, oh my gosh, you're not just a complete jerk. She didn't use the word jerk. She used a much more colorful language. But it was like this, like, AHA moment of like, he just has a different this is kind of an oversimplification, but it was like how he communicated, how he prioritized was consistent with his values, but that was coming into clash with how she was doing it and it was a clash of her values. So I think part of this, even if people annoy us and we find them difficult and they find us difficult, if we can create kind of a zone of agreement and then the thing says, okay, we've learned this about ourselves. This is how we're going to operationalize that knowledge. Here's how we are going to create guidelines that recognize that we all have different ways of doing something. But here we're going to create our sandbox and these are what the guidelines are in our sandbox. And then we're going to go off and then hopefully that's going to avoid organizational drag.

Teri Schmidt 00:21:53 I love that the team first recognized the conflict, made an attempt to dig into it, put it in front of everyone to learn together, and then came out with processes and guidelines that would help the team to work more effectively in the future. Truly transforming conflict into generative productivity, just like we say in the Stronger to Serve values. While this conversation was just scratching the surface of handling conflict and also just scratching the surface of what expertise Carol has to offer, so make sure you check out the links in the show notes to follow her on LinkedIn and listen to this that she has to offer you.

Carol Bowser 00:22:35 You can just go to the website and if people are interested in receiving a conflict tip of the day, a tip of a trick, a technique, a video all designed to help you increase your conflict resolution muscles.

Teri Schmidt 00:22:45 And don't forget, if you're leading a hybrid or remote team, check out the bonus free clip we recorded about how to spot and resolve conflict in a virtual environment. You can get that at the link in the show notes. Until next time, lead with this quote by Thomas Crum in mind: "The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them."


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