Conflict avoiding, me?

Do you know how you deal with tricky personal or professional situations?
This article will help conflict avoiding readers to be more honest ànd become more effective.

A couple of weeks ago I trained a creative company in Amsterdam. Together with the entire staff we discussed possible ways to deal with conflicts of interests. I was positively surprised when one of the founders of the company shared that although his ambition is to deal with conflicts constructively he realizes that he tends to dodge most problems.

Different conflict modes

To introduce the topic I use this conflict mode instrument (TKI):

tki conflict modes


The TKI instrument model displays five different conflict modes depending on how collaborative or competitive we are. And although everyone makes use of all five conflict modes we tend to lean towards one or maximum two of these modes. This is not a conscious choice but rather the result of how we have been taught (or mostly not taught) to deal with conflicts.

When being asked about your personal conflict mode most people – including myself – will give socially acceptable answers. And those people who just like myself admire assertiveness but have never learned to deal with conflicts are in denial about how conflict avoiding they really are.

Yet for anyone who is eager to learn how to deal with conflicts it is crucial to become aware of your instinctive way of dealing with them.

A short survey

Following is a short survey aimed at people who dodge every potentially difficult situation but who are not aware that they do so.

Read the following and assess whether you are one of them.

Do you in most cases tend to:

  1. Say ‘Yes’ or formally agree, but you really go your own way either way.
  2. Keep your mouth shut because you feel bringing up how you feel about it is not going to help anyone.
  3. Plan a meeting about anything that might be tricky and postpone taking a decision to a next meeting.
  4. Convince yourself that managing other people’s expectations is their problem not yours.
  5. Postpone a difficult conversation because you are really too busy right now to even think about it.
  6. Complain about problems to others who are indirectly involved secretly hoping that they will deal with it and solve your problem too.
  7. Tell people around you ‘Do let me know whenever something is bothering you’ when the truth is that you’d rather not know at all.

Do you recognize any of these ‘tactics’?

When to avoid and when not to avoid

Destructive avoiding

Very often we do not assess situations but are driven by – unacknowledged – fear or shame to avoid all difficulties and avoid without thinking. And in those case avoiding is often destructive.

Avoiding is ineffective and possibly even destructive whenever:

Your interests are at stake and are of great importance to you.

The interests of people who depend on you or are in some way important to you are at stake.

The interests at stake belong to people who you depend on.

In longlasting collaborations the above is almost always the case. So really avoiding dealing with conflicting interests within a collaboration is always ill advice. When your interests or your partners interests are not being met for a substantial time the collaboration will most certainly end or turn sour.

In real life people tend to reason the other way round and mostly non hierarchical organizations can turn really sour because too many people are turning a blind eye. In doing so tensions only grow bigger and problems will become even more threatening to the organization or company.

Effective avoiding

When you do take the time to assess the situation and you have consciously opted to avoid a person or situation you are probably doing the sensible thing.

In fact avoiding is an effective conflict mode whenever:

The stakes are not high at all.
The situation is very complex, the stakes are high and there is no time left to deal with them effectively.
There is a substantial power difference to your disadvantage and challenging the other party will only harm you.

Avoiding can also be strategic as a preliminary measure until all the facts are known to you or in the event of a heated debate to permit you to wait until the other person has cooled down and is ready to talk to you again.

When you know you should seek a confrontation but feel like hiding out

Help yourself seek a confrontation by answering the following questions:

What can you gain by speaking up?

What can people around you – directly or indirectly involved – gain if you decide to speak up?

What is the worst thing that can happen as a result of your decision to speak up?

You will know what to do now.

It might be very hard the first time but in time it will become much easier and in any case more effective!



”No offense, but..”

Insults are not always clear cut. In a boardroom or staff meeting insults may sound different because people claim to be professional. There is a way to tackle hidden powerstruggles though. One strategy is to be more aware of relational messages.

In the Netherlands and in Flanders a common way to open your arguments these days is by saying ‘Met alle respect, maar..‘ which means as much as:

– ‘With all due respect, but ..
– ‘If I may, I’ll point out to you that..
– ‘No offense, but..‘.
– ‘Surely you’ll allow me to say that..’

Met alle respect, maar..‘ became a much used expression in Dutch politics and on television and has also been embraced by the corporate world.

  • Your competitor may say: ‘No offense, but that new program you’re developing is ridiculously similar to what we launched last year.’
  • Your business associate calls you saying: ‘I read your e-mail concerning new business opportunities and – with all due respect – these ideas of yours are pretty naive and outdated.
  • A colleague blurts out to you: ‘Your clients seem to be getting more impatient by the day, and if I may point out, I’m really not surprised, seeing how you tackle their requests.

These people claim they respect you, but do they?

Not a sign of respect but an exercise of power

Since these expressions are used in such a contradictory way one starts to wonder why they’re being used at all.

Paul Watzlawick offers an explanation. He developed five axioms (regularities) on which all communication is based. His Second Axiom describes accurately what comments like ‘Met alle respect, maar‘ or ‘No offense but ..‘ really imply.

Axiom II

Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication. 


It boils down to the fact that all communication includes more information than purely the literal message. What it also contains is information on 1) how the speaker wants to be understood and 2) how he sees his relation to the receiver of information. This is the Relationship Message.

According to Watzlawick – and given my experience as a mediator I agree with him – relationship messages are always the most important element in communication.

So what is the relationship message when you start your phrase with ‘No offense but..‘? Its message is that the speaker does not wish to be contradicted (you ‘can not’ be offended) because he or she sees him or herself as the more significant party.

In other words it is a disguised form of power play.

How to address this particular form of disguised power play

Relational messages in the form of ‘civilised’ insults can really harm relationships if they are not addressed,

If a business associate, a client, a colleague or a supplier is putting you down with nasty comments starting with ‘No offense but..‘ it may seem difficult to tackle. To deal with these comments effectively you will have to address the relational message.

As a rule of thumb wait for three signs of power play. The first time the speaker may have explained himself badly, the second time you may have misinterpreted what you heard, but the third time it is high time to act on it.

These are examples of replies aimed at addressing the relational message:

  • Do you realise that that is in fact a nasty comment?
  • What are you implying?
  • Why do you feel you can say that to me?

Addressing the relational message opens up a dialogue about the core issue.

By replying with a question about the relational message you leave room for a dialogue. If the speaker was not conscious about insulting you or realises that in fact he or she is not in a position to criticise you, you are leaving room for the speaker to correct himself.

In any case, following one of these replies, the speaker will be educated about the fact that you do not agree that he or she holds any power over you. Also the speaker will have to back up the criticism.

It may seem like a lot of effort but in an ongoing collaboration these interventions are well worth the effort. Not tackling power play will cause miscommunications that escalate into conflicts. Addressing the relational issue will set a collaboration straight and rebost your energy levels!


How to use non-violent communication

A lot of conflicts arise, and are fueled, by the process of blame. None of it is effective. Non-violent communication is. Here you’ll read how to apply non-violent communication towards your business partners, colleagues or suppliers to obtain what you need and to reduce your frustrations aswell as theirs.


When the going gets tough we tend to blame who ever else is involved. It is as natural as it is human to place the cause of our worries and concerns outside of ourselves and blame others for it. And you can rest assured that the other person involved in turn will blame us.The result of this mechanism sadly is that the going gets even more tough.

Recently this mechanism imposed itself upon me on a personal level. I am in the process of renegotiating my mortgage with my bank. In the course of this negotiation my husband and I had a meeting planned with a financial adviser at our current bank. On the morning of the apointment I received an e-mail from the adviser informing me that due to an internal program all meetings with clients would be rescheduled, without offering a date or possible dates for a new meeting. Not a good start. Within minutes after reading this ‘notice’ my idle prejudice – that banks don’t serve the interests of entrepreneurs well – had reinforced itself.

In fact I felt so mistreated that I called my bank and insisted on a meeting that same day at the end of the day and would not accept ‘no’ as an answer. As a result my husband and I were received that same day by a pretty stressed out adviser. During the conversation neither she (the adviser) nor I managed to let go of our indignation. It was only at the end of the meeting that I realised that I was the losing party, since I was the one who wants a service from them and I had now let my frustrations undermine my position in the negotation,

I had done exactly the opposite of what I advise my clients as a facilitator of negotations and as a mediator. My natural instinct had taken over, for the worst.

The better approach: non-violent communication

Here is what does work when you are in a professional relationship with someone and you feel ill treated. You’ll have to stay away from moral judgement and you want to focus on your needs instead of fueling angry feelings and venting them.

To communicate your needs and make sure that they are heard, and possibly met, you best turn to non-violent communication. It was developed by Marshall Rosenberg and is based on these four principles:


That providers don’t serve your interests well is a much heard frustration amoung professionals and entrepreneurs. If your work/assignment/company is suffering from that behaviour you will unconsciously label both the behaviour as your provider as a person.

It is not only providers who lose sight of your interests sometimes, it may aswell concern your colleague, your business partner or your boss. As soon as you are caught up in frustration your assumptions and prejudices will fuel your anger.

You can wait until these mechnisms poison the collaboration or you can decide to communicate your needs to the other person in an effective way leading to actual change.

  1. Observation

Reproduce and share exactly and objectively what occurred.

In the event that your boss, colleague or business partner is only available when he or she needs something from you, your objective account of the matter may be as such:
Whenever I call you, I reach your voicemail. By the time you call me back you’ll be in your car or your partner/children/other colleagues …are with you.’

  1. Feeling

Explain how this comes across on your end.

‘’This makes me feel that you are not actually interested in what I have to say or what I may need from you.’’

  1. Need

Think of what it is you need and ask for it. ’I need to feel that this is a partnership that serves not only your interests but mine aswell.’

  1. Request

Think of a way in which the other person can meet your need. For instance: ‘Next time you call me back, can you do so from a place where you are alone and can focus on our conversation?’

By focusing on your need instead of blaming and  by calling on a concrete, positive action you are a real team player and you serve your business interests well.

In other words, focus on your needs and aim for progress instead of on being right.




10 best practices

Are you caught up in a troubling situation or a tiresome collaboration? Not to worry, you can turn the tide. At least if you use the right de-escalation techniques. They needn’t be complicated. These 10 best practices will do the trick.

As soon as irritation kicks in we generaly react in one of these natural ways:

Beat back – this is precisely when a disagreement escalates into a conflict.
Give in – this might save the (business) relationship but in most cases it does not meet your interests.
End the collaboration – this should be a last resort as a breach alomost always has (financial) consequences.

Whatever automatic reaction you or I give in to, none of it serves our interests well.

Here are ten proven techniques to reduce friction and tension while keeping your eyes on your interests too.

  1. Avoid coalitions or choose them wisely.
    Coalitions enforce onesided opinions and will alienate you. Avoid the existing coalitions or make sure you build them across parties.
  2. Be clear about what to expect from eachother.
  3. Keep your head down until the storm is over.
    When someone is really angry, the worst strategy is to defend yourself. You’ll only pick a fight. If you manage to listen instead and even ask questions, the storm will blow over.
  4. Shine a light on dirty tricks.
    Someone you’re doing business with may pressure you by calling on non existing deadlines, using bluff or hidden agenda’s. If you realise that you are being manipulated, make clear that it has no effect on you. It will make the other person refrain from using these tricks with you in the future.
  5. Inform the other side about your position and about your interests.
    If you don’t, the collaboration can never be succesful.
  6. Explain intentions and resources.
    If everyone is clear on their intentions and their resources neither one of you will lose time and energy.
  7. Express whatever is working for you.
    It is important to be clear about things that are not working for you, but doing so will prove easier if you also compliment whenever you are pleased with certain services or outcomes.
  8. Bring the heat down.
    Whenever budgets are tight or time is limited and stakes are high people stop being effective. That goes for you aswell as for the other side. In these situations call on a coffee break whenever you can and make sure people actually leave the room for a couple of minutes. You can simply state that you need a break or you can say that you want to call someone on your end before making a decision. Equally effective is postponing an answer or e-mail until the next day.
  9. Recognise the position of the other person.
    Recognising that a situation is stressful, not only for you, but also for others involved, will earn you goodwill without giving in on your position.
  10. Speak your mind but always remain respectful. 
    Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip (W. Churchill).

These ten interventions are highly effective to reduce friction and restore difficult conversations or collaborations. In fact they all boil down to biting your tongue and doing what’s effective instead.

And since we are alle human and all have expectations, hopes, allergies and pride their effectivity is not limited to the business situation. So do feel free to try these at home.