Managing Conflict in the Workplace: How to Lean In and Build Bridges

By: The Humphrey Group

It’s estimated that over 75% of the population experiences some level of fear or anxiety when it comes to public speaking. But less spoken about fear – largely because it’s still considered taboo despite likely being no less prevalent – is the fear of conflict.

Think about it. Conflict, especially in the workplace, tends to have a negative connotation. When we are faced with a disagreement or know we may have an upcoming conversation that is challenging, we tend to catastrophize and imagine the worst-case scenario.

But as leaders, it’s critical to acknowledge that conflict is an inherent part of the leadership journey and, more importantly, to recognize that it is not a hindrance, but rather an opportunity for growth and collaboration.

At The Humphrey Group, we teach leaders to embrace conflict as an opportunity. The best way to do that is to ensure you are armed with tools that can help you navigate conflict effectively. With the right mindset and skillset, addressing conflict head on can lead to stronger relationships, innovative solutions, and enhanced team dynamics.

In our Leading Through Conflict module, we delve into a powerful framework called the DESP model – Disarm, Empathize, Support, and Probe. Let's unravel the layers of this dynamic framework and discover how it can redefine the way we perceive and approach conflicts in the workplace and beyond:


Disarm: Find common ground

Approaching conflict, especially when tensions are high, requires a thoughtful approach. In order to pave the way for resolution, the first step is to disarm. This is a process that involves finding common ground before delving into any disagreements.

The key is to seek areas of agreement, rather to begin with contradictory statements. Use phrases like "You're right," "I agree that," or "It's true."

Imagine a scenario where your team is divided on a strategic decision, and emotions are running high. To disarm the situation, you might start by acknowledging a shared goal or objective. You could say, "We all share the common goal of seeing our project succeed, and I think that's something we can all agree on."

This approach helps create a sense of unity before diving into the specific points of contention.


Empathize: Express genuine understanding

The next step is to express genuine empathy. This is about more than a vague acknowledgment of emotions. You must demonstrate understanding of the specific context. In other words, this is about putting yourself in their shoes.

Phrases like "I understand the difficult position this has put you in," or "I can see how frustrated you are" convey empathy that is rooted into the specific situation.


Support: Building Bridges to Resolution

The next step is to act as a support, which is the bridge to resolution. As a leader, this is where you demonstrate your belief in the other person and express your readiness to work through the conflict collaboratively.

You can do this by offering assistance or acknowledging the strengths of the individual, which can be powerful.

This can sound like, "I'm here to support you. If you'd like, we can schedule a meeting to discuss in more detail” or "Your ability to ask insightful questions and tackle challenges head-on is one of your standout leadership qualities. I believe that these strengths will play a crucial role in resolving the current conflict."


Probe: Asking questions to get to a resolution

After effectively disarming, empathizing, and providing support, if deeper insight or progress is necessary, the next step is to probe. This involves asking questions that encourage further discussion and understanding.

For instance, you could inquire, "What steps do you think would be effective in addressing this challenge?" This question not only fosters reflection but also creates an opportunity for a constructive and collaborative conversation.


Transforming conflicts into a catalyst for improvement

Conflicts should not be viewed as obstacles but rather as opportunities for growth and positive change. Inspiring leaders know how to lean in when conflict arises. Mastering the DESP framework – Disarm, Empathize, Support, and Probe – equips leaders with a powerful tool to turn conflicts into catalysts for collaboration and understanding. Embrace the power of conflict, and let the DESP framework guide you toward effective resolution and stronger, more resilient teams.