Navigating workplace conflict is tricky even when you’re not conflict-averse. In my case, I come from a family where open conflict was almost unknown — we muttered politely behind each other’s backs. When I entered the wider world, I discovered most people were not so constricted in their expressions of frustration and anger. It took me a while to learn conflict resolution techniques that landed me somewhere between domineering rage and silent submission.

I find that many of my clients also struggle with how to manage conflict, both in the workplace and at home. As an executive coach, it’s my job to help leaders manage themselves and others effectively, and that always involves mastering the skills of effective conflict management. So I developed the following …

The Gail Golden System for Navigating Workplace Conflict

  1. Get angry about something.
  2. If possible, wait to respond. Give yourself time to calm your immediate physical response and sort out your thoughts. The waiting period can be 10 minutes or 3 months or anything in between.
  3. Decide if the problem is important enough to address it. Some helpful questions:
    • Is this really a big deal?
    • Am I still mad?
    • Will I still be mad a year from now if I don’t deal with this?
    • Has it happened repeatedly or is this a one-off?
    • How important is this relationship to me? If it’s not that important, then why bother?
  4. Figure out your goal. What do you want the other person to do differently? Are you trying to maintain or improve the relationship, or do you want to demolish the other person?
  5. Think about what the other person is thinking and feeling. What is his/her motivation? He or she probably does not get up in the morning with the intention of ruining your day, so what is the intention?
  6. Plan out how to speak to the person so s/he can hear what you’re saying and will do what you want. Be specific. A very useful tool is to say, “I’m confused” and describe what the other person did and why it didn’t make sense to you. Confusion is not threatening — it invites conversation and clarification. (I acknowledge my everlasting gratitude to Dr. Judith Schachter for teaching me that useful phrase.)
  7. Think about the other person’s possible responses and how you will react.
  8. Have the conversation, in person if possible. Phone is second best, and email is the worst because of the high likelihood of misunderstanding.
  9. Reflect on how it went and take away what you have learned.

Here’s an example. A client of mine had a colleague who said in a public meeting which she did not attend that he thought she had done something unethical.

  1. She was furious.
  2. She took several days to think about what to do.
  3. She decided this was a really important problem to address. His comment could potentially damage her professional reputation.
  4. Her goal was to address the specific situation and to ensure that he would not ever make such a comment again.
  5. She remembered that he had once offered to collaborate on a project and she had turned him down. Perhaps he was hurt and trying to get back at her?
  6. She arranged a meeting with him and their mutual boss. She explained the circumstances of the incident he had mentioned and they all agreed that her behavior had been exemplary.
  7. She told him that if he ever again had a question about her professional ethics he should come and talk to her personally first, instead of bringing it up in a public setting. She told him if he ever did that again she would sue him for damages to her business.
  8. He never did it again.

Of course, no system works perfectly for every person in every situation. But these guidelines have proved remarkably effective in helping business leaders deal with conflict in a way that leads to a satisfactory outcome.

If you would like to learn more about conflict management for yourself or your organization, contact us at

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