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Summer is hot enough without conflict with your colleagues on top of it.

Hot cat lays in front of fan on back with big belly

No but seriously, I hate summer. Who’s ready for fall?!?!

Like summer, I would prefer to avoid conflict, if I could. I can’t, though. conflict is a natural part of the process of creative collaboration. While it feels like crap, this is one of those times to not always follow your gut. When your fight or flight instinct goes off, sometimes there’s another option. As Steven Covey says in his excellent book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power–you have the freedom to choose your response.”

Putting this idea into play was a long and hard-won journey for me, however, when it came to conflict. The fight or flight instinct strong. In my case, mostly flight, although I had my share of fights too!

The Conflict and I

I focused on increasing my skill at handling conflict for years. Maybe I was in a very conflict-heavy culture at the time, but I felt this was something I needed to work on improving.

This was how things often went down. I could be perfectly sure I was right. Resistance might rise, and if there was any tinge of disrespect or condescension, I’d fold utterly flat as a pancake and give up. While I might feel I knew the best path forward, at first I had trouble putting my thoughts out there in a tense situation. Especially if my opinion was unwelcome.

Over time, I started to get more comfortable with conflict. As I grew, when conflict arose where someone was outright disagreeing with me, I wouldn’t necessarily back down, but I now I temporarily locked up. It took even more practice to become comfortable in engaging directly, head-on in heated (but respectful) debate.

I’d like to share with you some tips, over the course of several posts, on how to get better at handling conflict. I believe that this is one of the most important skills for a designer to master to be truly effective at seeing their designs come to life.

But before we go on, I want to note: locking up was not necessarily a bad way to deal with this situation. Engaging might be better, but not if I would have been too frustrated to argue well. Being stressed, if I stopped and called a time-out, that helped me to process and restart discussions later when I felt more ready. Sometimes, I could restart a debate when I felt more in control and prepared. While this is better than flipping out or totally caving, it’s not ideal. You do miss opportunities this way. Not every discussion can be revisited.

Sometimes you just have to speak your mind in the moment. Whether you like it or not.

Let’s try to like it, shall we?

A few ideas to help you begin embracing conflict

Disagreeing with people is never going to be fun. But it can get easier.

1) Mental Rehearsal

Walk yourself through different eventualities. If it’s big meeting or just a team divided, think about each stakeholder. What do you know about what each one wants and worries about? Don’t know? Maybe it’s time to ask them or one of your colleagues. (You may also want to consider if you are sure you’re thinking of everyone. I made a PDF download that can help you identify as many potential stakeholders as possible. Check it out!) 

No, you won’t think of every possibility. But you will begin to feel more comfortable with some of them. For each stakeholder, imagine them voicing their concerns. How could you respond? What are your options? Are there things you could do before talking to them that would make the discussion easier? 

Push yourself to think positively. Even if your first mental rehearsal is a train wreck, imagine again and again until you can see yourself working through the situation. What information, allies, or research do you need to have done to make that path a reality? This can also help you key in on important obstacles that you don’t (yet) know how to solve.

Imagine yourself resolving difficult negotiations with a smile. Visualize finding a win-win. Focus on seeing it concretely: where you will be, what you will say, walking through each step of the process. Visualize how it will feel to convince others and leave everyone feeling satisfied with the outcome. 

Imagining a positive outcome is the first step to getting to one.

2) Remind yourself who you’re fighting for

This is actually something that helped me the most. Visiting users and talking to them directly is so powerful. It’s one thing to have a target user, another thing to have a persona named “Sam,” and it’s another thing to remember Lt. Williams that you met in Texas and the problems he explained to you. (Not a real user’s name. Obviously.)

Focusing on those who might benefit or lose from the argument, but who aren’t present, stirs the activist in me. I’m an INFJ, what can I say. While I struggled to fight for my own ideas, I could much more easily and confidently fight on someone else’s behalf. I felt more entitled to speak out. If I didn’t, I was part of the problem. You’re not causing trouble because you were just raring for a showdown, but because it’s your job to look out for users. It also brings discussions back to what is hopefully a shared, common goal. 

To do this, you could:

  • Review notes from a recent research trip or user interview prior to a big meeting
  • Mention anecdotes or user data as part of a conflict discussion
  • Make a habit of bringing personas with you to meetings, physically printed out for reference when needed
  • Keep your user research artifacts well organized and familiar to you, so you can bring out info that’s relevant to a discussion when it comes up
  • Suggest user observation or other techniques for folks who might disagree with you. Watching users directly is highly effective at building a truly user-centered development team.

This practice in particular helped me move out of my comfort zone. Then once I was able.

3) Also remind everyone else—State user goals and target users up front

If I said it once, I’ll say it again.

Know who your user is. If you’re leading a meeting, include this information as a reminder to set the tone of the discussion. If it’s not your meeting or an impromptu hallway discussion, bring this up as necessary. It’s not about your personal goals or ego—it’s about your users and customers. What’s best for them?

4) Practice practice practice: Play board games!

We learn more when we’re having fun, right? 😀

I had never played many board game beyond the kind we play as kids, until friends got me more interested over the last five years. I was surprised at how different the games could be socially and collaboratively. Some were highly cooperative, others cutthroat. Both can be good practice in resolving conflicts. The stakes are low, but not nonexistent. You’re with friends, which hopefully means you know them well, and they’ll forgive you if you say something horrible.

I’m just starting to play D&D, and I love it! It’s so far been more on the cooperative end of the spectrum.

And you can find more here: Board Game Geek!

Next week, I’ll update with another installment of tips and ideas for running over hot coals in your bare feet I mean, learning to handle conflict with ease!


I want to hear from you. What do you struggle with when it comes to conflict?

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