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Constructive Confrontation

First published in the Business Women’s Calendar,
January 1999

Trapped, intimidated, afraid, angry, tearful, panicky. When I ask clients to word-associate with conflict, those are some of their answers. Yet conflict can be an opportunity for personal growth, improved communications, better relationships and even untapped creativity.

By mastering a few simple tools, you can alter your perception of conflict and learn to confront constructively:

Understand what is really going on.

Frequently, the issue on the table is not the problem. You’re debating the final color of a brochure. Color may be less of an issue than how the decision is made. One person may want consensus among colleagues; another, in the interests of efficiency, may want to make the decision quickly and unilaterally; a third may require research data on market perceptions of color before making the decision. If you understand what is really going on, you’ll be in a better position to deal with it.

Hang on to your goal.

Don’t let unrelated issues distract you. You remind your Information Systems manager he promised to install your new PC by last Monday. He tells you he doesn’t have time, he has to test new software, his son is in the Little League Championships and his car is on the blink. Tell him you’re sorry he has so many distractions. Then ask him again when he can install it. That’s the issue.

Recognize that there are several ways to resolve a dispute.

You’ve been asked to prepare a report by Tuesday. You are running late and your manager is steaming. Is the date immoveable? Could the report take another form? An outline? Bullet points with some fleshed out to indicate direction? Could different sections be written by other colleagues? Could it be an oral presentation instead of a written report? Could you request interviews of key, senior executives (all waiting for the report) in order to engage them in the process and also buy you some extra time? Examine the probable outcome of each of these and other solutions (relief that you’re on the right track, enthusiasm of executives at your creativity, gratitude or displeasure of colleagues to be included in the project) Then select the best.


For what is said and unsaid. In a heated discussion, people often drop clues that help you understand what’s really important in the discussion. You and your partner are discussing an office move. She doesn’t want to move because you won’t be able to find a place within your budget, a move will be disruptive, it’s too much of a hassle, clients will get angry at the interruption of work, deadlines will be missed and “Besides. I like walking to work.”

Also consider the unspoken.

93% of what is communicated in any dialogue is non-verbal. There are all kinds of signals in a dispute. What is her body language telling you? How about her tone of voice? Do you have the sense that there something she’s not saying? Ask her.

Validate the other person’s point of view.

This can move mountains. Let the other person know that you see her point of view, you understand why she feels that way and you probably would feel that way yourself if you were she. This does not mean you agree with her. It just means you think her point of view is legitimate. You are validating her as a person. You and a colleague are arguing over attendance at an important client meeting. She has a personal schedule conflict. “I understand what you are saying about Tuesday’s meeting, Louise. If my daughter were in the school play I would want to be there too.” Then stop. Say nothing more. You have demonstrated that you heard her and you understood her. Louise may then respond that she’d really like to be at the meeting, she cares deeply about the copy she wrote and she would like to present it to the client. Out of this may come a different day, a different time or a combination of Louise being there to present the copy, but other colleagues picking up the slack in follow-up brainstorming so she can get back for the performance.

Listen carefully. Validate the other person’s point of view. Don’t get distracted. Make sure that what you are debating is really the issue. Generate as many options for resolution as you can, exploring the probable outcomes-good and bad-of each of those options. The more information you each have, the easier it will be to resolve the conflict. And the better you’ll feel about how you worked together to do so.


Julie Denny

Julie Denny spent fifteen years in marketing and business development for Dow Jones, McGraw-Hill and the Associated Press and four years with the Alliance for Mediation & Conflict Resolution before founding Resolutions in 1998. She works with individuals and organizations, using mediation, facilitation, training and coaching to foster constructive communication. Organizational… MORE >

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