Managing in Moments of Conflict

What to do When Dialogue Turns to Disagreement

Leanna is a middle leader of a large team. She approaches her team member, Leon, about his history of failing to meet deadlines. The team had an important deadline, and Leanna hoped Leon would get things in on time. The conversation starts well. She feels like they are making good progress. Only when Leanna sets a firm boundary for the timeline and expectations around what needs to be done does the conversation turn from dialogue to disagreement?

Leon flicks a switch and becomes disagreeable about everything that is said. In response, to protect her point of view, she fires off statements like, “You are always late with deadlines. No one else has problems getting things in on time. You are so unprofessional.” In response, Leon comes back with, ”You are so controlling. What’s wrong with being a little late? Relax!”

WOW, What the heck has happened?

Do you believe sometimes it’s a choice between telling the truth and keeping the relationship? As a result, you avoid the conversation. That is what Leanna would have preferred to do. She knows Leon always comes up with excuses or someone else to blame when getting things in on time. She often wonders if it’s easier just to shut up and put up.

How often have you kept quiet rather than spoken up?

This time Leanna did have the conversation. Leon got defensive quickly and the conversation turned from dialogue to disagreement without warning. I’m guessing you can think of a few conversations that have unintentionally gone that way.

Even with the best intent in the world, you cannot control how the other person will respond. Research by the Crucial Learning Group clearly shows that three triggers cause a conversation to shift from safe to dangerous, away from connecting and into protecting.

• High Stakes

• High Emotions

• Differing Opinions

We avoid any conversations that feature any one of these. The problem with avoidance is if we don’t talk it out, we act it out. We are designed wrong; our neurobiology is designed to look for signs of safety and danger. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to react to interpersonal threats as we deal with physical ones—our natural tendencies in threatening moments lean toward fight or flight rather than listening and speaking.

When a tricky conversation arises, we often face pressure and operate from a threat response. Because we are in an amygdala- driven state, adrenaline is on the rampage, and we are almost incapable of rational thought. Not to mention problem-solving or empathy.

We don’t know where to start in those moments, so we make it up as we go along.

We act in self-defeating ways. We don’t lean into genuine curiosity. Instead, we make wild statements of blame and wield our emotions as facts. It’s hard to be curious when you feel challenged by someone else. We must reset the brain and reactivate our prefrontal cortex in those moments by noticing the signs and using them as a catalyst for curiosity. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, suggests, “Between the stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When you create that space, you can make better decisions in the moment.

• Build an awareness

• Notice the behaviours

Let’s take a look at how you can do that.

Build an Awareness

Like any challenge in life, when we are caught unaware, things can escalate very quickly. Unmet expectations in a conversation can catch us unprepared. In those moments of surprise, we can react instead of responding.


Ask yourself the following questions.

a. Opposing opinions? If so, get curious – What are the opposing opinions?

b. Strong emotions at play? If so, get curious – What emotions are at play here for you? What about for the other person?

c. High-stakes? If so, get curious – What’s at stake here – for you, the other person, the relationship?

If, at any moment, you can identify any of these in action, you are in the high-risk zone. Dialogue may turn to disagreement, so take action to stop it from happening. Slow down. Move into curiosity and listen to their perspective before you share your own. Listening first, without judgment, is a powerful act of compassion. It creates safety and connection and allows you to be responsive rather than reactive.

Notice the Behaviours

When we feel unsafe, we behave in a way that has a negative impact. We either move towards villainous control or victim-like caution. Nothing good will come from a conversation where one or both parties are amygdala driven.

When we feel safe, we behave in a way that positively impacts the conversation. We relinquish the need to control the conversation. We either move towards engaging curiosity or courageous compassion even when every cell in our body screams to defend ourselves.

Moving towards Positive Impacts

• Pause / Breathe – Take a deep breath and as you breathe out, Acknowledge what’s just been said. Acknowledge doesn’t mean you agree; it means you have heard.

• Ask – Ask an open question. Not a question you already know the answer to or a cutting rhetorical question you use as a sword. Ask a genuinely curious question.

A word of advice, however, is that Acknowledgement and Empathy are communication superpowers. To amplify their impact, steer clear of the use of “but” or “however.” These two words negate your acknowledgement and empathy.

For example, you are having a conversation with a colleague about an important deadline. There are differing opinions as to when the deadline should be. The other person has just told you that they think you are making a big deal out of nothing. What you really want to respond with is, “Well, you would say that you never take anything seriously.”

Instead you…

Pause / Breathe

Empathise/Acknowledge – “I can hear you disagree with me on this.”

Ask – “You just said you don’t think this is important. Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say that?”

It’s helpful to have a go-to question. It’s hard to self-regulate when you are triggered to fight-flight. What might be your go-to question in those challenging moments?

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Tabitha Leonard

Tabitha Leonard, creator and founder of coaching intelligence NZ is a certified communication coach known for creating school cultures where approaches to communication propel performance. She is obsessed with supporting leaders to communicate with the brain in mind so they can nurture exceptional educators. She can be contacted at