Conflict conversations — beyond the words

Earn trust

You can feel your stress levels rising. The adrenaline is kicking in: your breathing is shallower, your heart rate elevated.

You re-check your notes. Again. Your alarm goes off: it’s time to have that tricky conversation. Last time you did this, it didn’t go well, despite your preparation. This one will probably be the same. You take a deep breath and welcome your staff member into a reserved meeting room.

Managing conflict is a common everyday situation. Even so, conflicts are hard. People avoid them. Whole books have been written about the art of it. As a leader, you’re where the responsibility falls to hold those tough conversations (which is why it’s an essential part of our workshops, and why it is a hot topic in our coaching practice). Whether the impact is day to day (pair programming, picking the best architecture, prioritising work) to more significant (performance improvement plans, organisation restructure, violating company policies), you do your best to prepare and aim for the best outcome.

Why can these conversations fail, despite the best preparations?

Just like the sources of conflict don’t happen in a vacuum, the conversation doesn't either. The context must be considered: what has gone before that led up to this point, what does either side think the outcome might be (and is this aligned), as well as conducting the conversation itself.

When we consider the events that have led up to this moment, this doesn't just mean interactions and activities that have taken place at work. It also includes having an understanding of any impacts on your colleague’s personal life that might be chewing up their resilience (births, deaths, marriages, kids, illness, moving house, etc), as well as similar considerations in your own life.

However, it is also vital to make a conscious effort to observe how you, and the individuals on your team respond to stress.

The stress response: fight/flight/freeze/fawn

Knowing what to look for when examining our own state of stress, and that of others, can help us prepare and tailor any tough conversation to account for emotional state, not just rational words.

When we perceive a threat, our bodies trigger a psychological response to keep us safe and get us out of harm’s way. The expression “fight or flight” might be familiar, this is only half of the picture. There is also the “freeze” and the “fawn” response.

Let’s take a look at each of these within an organisational context: their reason for being, signs and symptoms and how to manage each of them.


  • The way out of the situation is through aggression.
  • Fisticuffs isn't likely in a work environment, but making use of dominating body language and verbal hostility is a common pattern.
  • Gently make them aware of their stress response and set boundaries for unacceptable behaviour: feeling frustrated is ok and even expected in this situation, but name-calling and slamming your fist into the wall is not.
  • Give them space to sit and process before continuing with the conversation. If suitable, you could take a break and come back to it after a short break.
  • Consider whether flagging a tough conversation in advance is helpful or harmful. It could mean that the other person can deal with the initial adrenaline rush in private, allowing them to show up more calmly to the meeting. Or it could mean that, by the time you meet, they've built up a real head of steam.
  • It may be useful to take a walk to help give the extra energy generated by the adrenaline a physical outlet.


  • The safest way out of the situation is to not be in it.
  • Alas, no wings grow. But work absenteeism, or mental distress triggering a physical reaction such as nausea, can produce the same avenue of escape. Restless fidgeting, and eyes darting towards distractions are possible symptoms.
  • Becoming incredibly busy in an area that isn't stressful is also an avoidant flight response.
  • During a conflict conversation, getting them (and you!) a drink of water partway through can give them some relief from the stress, and time to compose themselves.
  • Sometimes making available a collection of fidget toys can give their restlessness an outlet while still allowing them to stay present.
  • Provide supportive accountability: if they’re missing deadlines or missing meetings, let them know that they are valued, and renegotiate workload if necessary.


  • If I don’t move, the threat can’t see me, and will not attack.
  • This tends to show up as mental lethargy, inability to make a decision or being unable to react to the current circumstances in a protective numbness.
  • If someone has been through fight or flight and their stress hasn't abated, going into freeze mode can be an indicator that burnout might be close, because they’re running out of options. They might not believe that the situation could change for the better.
  • This person is probably not feeling psychologically safe, and you need to start by helping them get back to that level of trust, safety, and support.
  • In the meanwhile, ensuring that they have enough additional time to process information can be helpful in getting them to a decision.
  • Help them find a pathway that restores their hope in an improved future.


  • The threat can’t hurt me if it likes me.
  • Someone who tries to see the other person’s point of view to the level of self-detriment may be experiencing a fawn reaction.
  • It can look like people pleasing, or perfectionism. Garnering praise from someone with authority provides insulating assurance that they are safe and protected.
  • This can show up either as someone who holds the opinion of the last person they spoke to.
  • They will find any conflict hard to deal with, even if they’re not directly involved, and may step in to try to get people to repair what they perceive as ruptured relationships.
  • Check in with this person if they don’t seem comfortable sharing opinions of their own: they might need a less public forum. Help them where their boundaries are and where they might need to be more assertive.

In all cases, to help the other person move past the sense of threat and into a more open mindset, let them know how they will benefit from the conversation. This also increases their resilience to handle the discomfort of a challenging topic.

The conversation

Now we understand different ways that people may respond to stress, how does that help us with our upcoming conflict conversation?

  • Prepare - what do you need to do in advance to make you both ready for the best possible outcome?
  • Meet - what tools do you have in the moment to support you both?
  • Followup - for any conversation to stick and result in a change in behaviour, you want to allow time to gather feedback, and opportunities to provide any necessary support.

Preparation checklist

  • What are the typical stress responses for them, and for you?
  • What are the signals they and you are giving off right now, that would give a clue as to the level of their stress?
  • How do they like to learn? (Many conflict conversations are about introducing a new way of working)
  • How do they like to collaborate? (A conflict conversation is a kind of collaboration, after all)
  • Do they usually prefer to get material in advance so they can think about it, or do they prefer to get it in the moment so they don’t have time to overthink or get anxious beforehand?
  • What will they get out of this conversation that is positive for them? (Stay tuned for a future article which goes into this one item in more detail)
  • What else is going on for them right now, both at work and externally?
  • How does this conflict conversation affect you? What do you need to do to keep yourself regulated?
  • Have you blocked time after the conversation to recover, and reflect on how it went so you can improve your skills?

Managing the stress during the conversation

Ideally we could choose the ideal time to have a difficult talk, when there’s adequate time, the right space, and no other pressing demands going on. However that’s rarely the case!

Being aware of how everyone is entering the conversation lets you understand what you might see during the conversation.

  • What is their state of psychological safety generally within the organisation and specifically with you?
  • What’s your degree of trust and respect for each other?
  • Keep in mind their usual stress response so you can watch for signs that they are now so far from their comfort zone that they will struggle to engage.
  • What can you do in the moment to help them regulate and de-escalate?
  • Handling difficult conversations and supporting people who are stressed (especially if you’re partially the cause) are tiring. Do either or both of you need a break after the conversation before getting back into the usual routine?

Following up

A follow-up is the true test of whether the conversation was effective is whether the desired outcome actually occurred. The conversation around commitment and accountability can also be one of conflict!

If the outcome is good, then it might be worth spending a moment to acknowledge to them, that the situation was uncomfortable but it went well. Providing this feedback builds resilience and trust and hopefully means in the future they will feel less anxious about experiencing healthy conflict.

If the outcome you’re seeking doesn't come to pass, it may be that the conversation content was lost in the stress response, or they need further support. It does not necessarily mean that the conversation failed, or that the other person is wilfully sabotaging your best efforts.


For a tough conversation to go well, there’s more to it than just finding the right words. Understanding how stress impacts people in different ways and the biological imperative of the emotional response can prepare yourself, and others, for the best chance of success.

You might like to try our free worksheet for your direct reports to fill out and share with you (and vice versa!), so you can have an open conversation about stress management, before you’re in the middle of it.

Download the stress response worksheet

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