Defuse Conflict and Demonstrate Your Effective Listening with DESP

Leading in Conflict

Many of us feel the urge to run the other way when we sense conflict arising during a conversation. Sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, and constricting muscles are common symptoms many of us experience when we are thrown into conflict situations without a warning. 

Imagine you are called to respond to negative feedback from your manager or a sudden complaint from your client. Perhaps a colleague disagrees with an idea that you put forward in a meeting. These are only a few examples of difficult and delicate conversations that have the potential to escalate into conflict if not handled with care.

Great leaders are often recognized for their ability to turn challenging conversations into defining moments of leadership. By embracing and responding to conflict in a timely manner, they are able to inspire and build a deeper connection with their audiences in creative and opportune ways.

How can we master this ability to embrace conflict in our lives and careers?


Listening Comes First

Two skills, listening and communication, are vital to turning any conflict situations into opportunities for inspiration. 

While it’s common for us to feel threatened and defensive in conflict situations, listening is an essential key toward forming an effective response.

Our last post, “How to Listen as a Leader,” shared valuable strategies for becoming a conscious and intentional listener. If you missed this post, you are highly encouraged to check it out before proceeding to the next step. This post will help you listen physically, mentally, and emotionally, which are critical first steps to diffusing conflict.

Then, only after you have listened, you are ready to respond in the right way by taking 4 important communication steps: Disarm, Empathize, Support, and Probe (or Persuade). 

At The Humphrey Group, we refer to these 4 steps as the DESP formula.


Why use DESP?

DESP is a helpful tool during conflict situations because it helps us to be audience-centered, while guiding the discussion toward a potential solution or meaningful vision. It is a scalable technique that can be tailored to long or short conversations with any audiences, whether they are your peers, managers, or direct reports.

In this post, we will explore each step in detail and go through several examples to get you prepared for practice.


Step 1: Disarm

After listening, when you notice conflict arising, first begin by disarming. The best way to disarm is to find common ground. Even if you don’t wholly agree with someone else’s perspective, instead of disagreeing right away, find something to agree with - even if it’s a small part of their view. 

Doing this not only calms the person you are talking to, but it also helps you to listen deeply in order to understand their point of view on a given issue.

Disarming statements begin with phrases like “You’re right,” “I agree that…,” or “It’s true that...”.

For example, if one of your direct reports came into your office and said, “I can’t work with John any longer, he’s intolerable!” You may not agree that John is an intolerable person to work with, but you might be able to say, “I agree; you and John are always butting heads. I’ve noticed it too.”


Step 2: Empathize

Then, express your empathy in a specific way. Genuine empathy is more than just saying “I understand how you feel.” It relates to the particular context and perspective of the person you are speaking to. 

Even if you are not sure exactly what emotion someone is feeling, you can still tailor your expression of empathy toward the situation they are in. 

For example, depending on the situation, you might say something like, “I understand the difficult position this has put you in” or “I can see how frustrated you are.”

How can we build on the same conversation from Step 1 to showcase genuine empathy in a specific way? What might that sound like? 

After saying, “I agree; you and John are always butting heads. I’ve noticed it too,” perhaps you could say, “I understand why you’d be frustrated, given how frequently you two need to collaborate.”


Step 3: Support

Support is then all about showing your willingness to work through the conflict. Here, you are communicating your faith in the other person or offering help, if you can.

Support statements often take the form of help (ex. “I’d be happy to sit down with you and go through it in detail”) or praise (“You always ask great questions!”).

Let’s now build on the same example that we’ve been working on. How can we add a support statement after saying, “I agree; you and John are always butting heads. I’ve noticed it too. I understand why you’d be frustrated, given how frequently you two need to collaborate”?

Perhaps if you are taking the praise route, your support statement would sound like this: “I’ve worked with you for 5 years and you’ve always been able to work through conflict when it arises. It’s one of your best leadership qualities.


Step 4: Probe

At last, once you have disarmed, empathized, and supported, you can ask a question if you still feel like your audience isn’t ready to be persuaded.

To complete our example, you would say:

“I agree; you and John are always butting heads. I've noticed it, too. I understand why you'd be frustrated, given how frequently you two need to collaborate. I've worked with you for 5 years and you've always been able to work through conflict when it arises. It's one of your best leadership qualities. Do you think John would be willing to sit down and talk it through?"

This last step of probing helps to make your audience feel like they aren’t being railroaded with your ideas or perspectives and facilitates a smooth and collaborative conversation toward a potential solution.

If you are taking the persuasion route in this last step, you may provide a solution or positive vision about the issue at hand by distilling your ideas down to a clear message.

For instance, in the example that we’ve been working on, you can propose your solution in the form of a message rather than a question. This might sound something like: “I am confident that you and John would be able to reach a better working dynamic by sitting down and talking it through.”

Notice how the choice between probing and persuading depends heavily on being audience-centered. By engaging in both mental and emotional listening, we can gauge whether our audience is ready to hear our message or some more conversation would be needed for us to better understand their perspective and feelings on the situation.



You are now ready to practice these 4 steps! In the next conflict conversation that you encounter, try out these steps to deescalate the conflict and to turn it into a timely opportunity for deeper connection and inspiration.

If you enjoyed reading this article on the DESP formula, you may also enjoy taking part in one of our new signature learning experiences, Learn to Love Feedback, for a deeper dive into how to combine our active listening skills with responding to difficult feedback.

If you are interested in more resources to improve your leadership communication skills in general, check out a comprehensive list of The Humphrey Group’s Leadership Communication Training programs on our website.

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