Ernest R. Anderson Jr., MS, RPh
“Leadership in Action” is authored by Ernest R. Anderson Jr., MS, RPh, System Vice President of Pharmacy, Steward Health Care System, Boston, Mass. Mr. Anderson welcomes your input on leadership issues, at

Have you ever entered into a conversation with great intentions of resolving an issue by getting your point across only to come away muttering to yourself, “Well, that didn’t go quite as I intended.”?

All too often I have had that experience and resolved to prepare better and lead with a question, especially if the conversation is with someone I don’t know well. Words are so simple. We use them constantly. Yet, words are very powerful and can mean the difference between a successful conversation and a harmful one.

We continue our series on peacemaking based on Ken Sande’s book “The Peace Maker” (Third Edition, Baker Books; 2004). When you approach someone with a question, instead of letting the hammer come down on them, you show grace and a willingness to understand. People often make assumptions. We think we know why someone acted in a particular way or failed to act in a particular way. The reality is we need to learn the story behind the person’s action or inaction. As a leader, if you come down with the hammer, you will put people on the defensive and they often become unresponsive to problem solving. When you lead with a question, in contrast, it tells the other person that you are interested in him or her and want to learn the root cause of a conflict or issue. Such an approach becomes an opportunity for opening dialogue via effective listening, so that you can then correct the person’s behavior, if necessary, in a way that helps rather than harms.

You also may need to ask clarifying questions to understand fully or you may want to reflect back your understanding of what you are hearing. If you determine that you need to correct someone, you may want to start the correction with a statement such as, “In listening to you I sense that you want to do well at this job. My responsibility is to help you be successful. So let’s talk about how you can improve.”

If you can ask leading questions to steer someone in the right direction to the proper conclusions, then you’ve been successful. If that does not work, then there may be the direct method of just laying it out. You are holding people accountable because you are concerned about their success in their jobs, so conveying that goal while still taking a sterner approach can be a path to success.

There also may be times when, as a leader, you are at fault and the source of a conflict, which comes out in the conversation. In those times, you may need to humbly admit to your shortcomings. In many cases it is a combination of partial fault of both parties. This takes you listening for the truth in what the other is saying. By admitting your fault, you open up the opportunity for dialogue to fully reach a deep understanding. Find those areas that you both have in common before moving on to the areas where matters need to be resolved. As a manager, it is important to keep your emotions in check, not become defensive and show a controlled response.

How We Speak Matters

Another element in communication is the ability to speak to others in a clear, constructive and persuasive manner. Remember that communication is more than words, however. The other party quickly perceives our attitudes. If we can show patience and gentleness to others, their receptivity to our correction will be increased. Our tone of speech also is important. As a leader, if we come alongside to help someone and correct him or her, it is far better than if we come from above. Choosing the right time and place is important. Make sure you have enough time for the conversation and do so in person and in private. Corrective conversations are not done well through email or letter unless it is the invitation to do so in person. The following are a few additional tips for handling these types of confrontational conversations:

Use a story or analogy to get a point across. You want to appeal to the values and heart of the other person to capture his or her attention. You also need to communicate clearly. Planning your words carefully can help get the conversation started in the right direction. If you are partially at fault for an issue that has arisen, state so at the beginning and further state that your desire is to resolve any conflict so you can move forward.

Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. For example, “I feel that you are not pulling your weight” is received a bit differently from “you are not pulling your weight.” The former opens conversation, the latter makes the other person defensive.

Be objective when possible. For example, you may state, “You have been late for work five times in the past three weeks,” which is very different from “you are always late for work.”

image Ask for feedback. This is a great check to see if your intent really is being understood. Getting agreement on understanding and developing an action plan going forward provides great clarity and avoids future conflicts regarding a given issue. You also may need to suggest solutions to help the other person solve the issue that has caused a conflict, whether that conflict is with yourself or with the other person.

Sande quotes a mediator, Ron Kraybill: “Effective confrontation is like a graceful dance from supportiveness to assertiveness and back again.” I find a lot of truth in this statement from my own experiences.

When To Get Others Involved

Sande recommends a stepwise approach to conflict resolution:

Step 1: Overlook minor offenses. There are some issues that are just not worth fighting over.

Step 2: Speak to someone in private when there is a conflict. By going to this person you are seeking to resolve the issue and restore the relationship. The discussion above has been largely centered on this step.

Step 3: Have someone else go with you if you have been unsuccessful in confronting an individual when trying to resolve a matter. As a manager, you might have to resort to asking Human Resources to become involved in a situation. If it is a peer relationship then this is a bit of a different circumstance. The purpose of bringing someone along when there has been no resolution is to act as the intermediary. This individual listens to both sides of an issue and helps to provide clarity and understanding to both parties. Hopefully by bringing greater understanding to a situation, the parties can resolve differences. If there still is no resolution, the mediator may need to take the role as an arbitrator and determine the outcome of a dispute. It is best if the mediator is agreed on by both individuals. As a leader, you may sometimes take on either of these two roles in a dispute, whether in your department or perhaps outside of your department.

The Bottom Line

In all cases, resolving conflict aims at restoration and personal growth and improvement of those involved. Conflict is a part of life and is manifested as long as there are human beings interacting. Resolving conflict restores communication and peace. Unresolved conflict results in strife and resentment.