Bill Watterson

5 Hard Questions to Ask Yourself During a Conflict

Julie Zhuo
Apr 16, 2013 · 6 min read

It happens more often than is polite to admit. A versus B, you against me. We do not agree, so I’m pissed, so I go home and practice that age-old art of Placing the Blame Squarely on the Other Side.

Oh, it’s so easy. It feels justified — cathartic even — to wait for the other party to see the light, to undergo metamorphosis, to fall to their knees and realize their folly. How obvious in hindsight! How strikingly clear! Of course it was you all along who was the gleaming Paragon of Rightness!

Too bad it doesn’t always play out like that. If you were, in fact, 100 percent correct every single time there was a conflict, you’d have the statisticians boggled. Every conflict is, as they say, a two-way street. It can’t possibly always be the other person’s fault. And even if it is, or you aren’t sure if it is, why sit around waiting for things to get better? A knot does not simply untie itself. You have complete control over one end of the relationship. So take an active approach to settling the conflict, and ask yourself these 5 questions instead:

1. Do I actually disagree with what the other person is saying?

4 times out of 5, when I ask myself what’s truly bothering me, it’s not that you and I can’t agree about the specifics — whether this particular design needs better hierarchy or a tighter execution, whether I’ve been late to a lot of meetings recently, whether I’ve been letting the dishes pile up in the sink. If I’m to be perfectly honest, I know that this isn’t my best design, and I’m always late, and Thursday’s dishes are pretty disgusting to still have around on Sunday. All of these things are true.

And yet, something about the manner in which you said it rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps your tone came off as rude or contemptuous. Maybe I think that you think I’m incompetent or lazy. It could be an eye roll, or a lip curl, or the fact you said it at all. Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe you were in fact acting like a Class A Douchebag.

But see, all of those reasons do not serve as an excuse. If you are making good, valid points, they are good, valid points. Period.

This is the most important lesson I have learned about conflict: Separate the point from the person. Take the former as empirical, and respond first and foremost to that. (“Yeah, it’s good feedback on the hierarchy. I’ll take another stab at the design.”) Compartmentalize the latter and save that for a separate discussion. (“Hey, when you use that skeptical tone of voice to ask me about my work, it makes me feel like you don’t trust my decisions. Is that true?”) If you can successfully do this, not only will you be much happier, you will always be making the best decisions in and of themselves. Because at the end of the day, good points are good points, and you can't argue against what’s in the best interest of the relationship/company/community.

Now, this isn’t to say you should let jerks continue their reign of terror and walk all over you — jerkish behavior should always be dealt with. But don't conflate the point that is being made (which may be a good point) with the attitude of the person making it.

2. Can I fairly articulate the other person's point of view?

If my first inclination during our disagreement is to call up a friend and begin a rant with, “He’s bat-shit crazy. I have no idea why he’d say/do that, clearly he’s smoking something or he maybe he just possesses the IQ of a snail” — it’s a sign I have absolutely zero context on why you’re doing what you’re doing and have not stopped to think about it or ask you. So instead of overdramatizing the 2,395 ways you might be insane, why don’t I try and understand what's actually making you tick?

Now, there’s a chance that even after more extensive research, the conclusion doesn’t change — said person is, in fact, crazy or low-integrity or possessing of a puny intellect. Fine. Then proceed accordingly, and don't give up the good fight.

But those are the rare, rare cases. Generally, people are good. And smart. And acting in a totally reasonable way. Most of the time, when you dive in deeper, what you’ll find is that you were lacking their perspective. And had you known what they knew, or seen what they saw, you too might have ended up with their opinion.

You can't even begin to resolve a conflict unless you understand why the other side thinks the way they do. So put some effort into figuring that out before you start questioning their mental aptitude.

3. Did I make myself clear?

Just like it’s hard to solve a conflict if you don’t understand the other side, the same is true in reverse. If you’ve left any room for misinterpretation or ambiguity in your point of view, fix it. Write an e-mail. Shoot over a message via chat. Set up some time to talk in person. Be exceptionally clear.

As someone who works in what’s generally considered a “subjective” field, my world is one of impassioned debates and product reviews. Every week, I participate in meetings in which we hash through disagreements about product direction. Having experienced both “winning” and “losing” too many times to count, I’ll say this — it stings when you can’t convince the other party of your point of view, but there is comfort in a fair process. When I know that everyone in the room has heard and internalized my arguments, even if the final decision swings the other way, I can sleep easy knowing the call was intentional and made with all the information on the table. The times in the past when I’ve been resentful or upset were when decisions were made with incomplete information — times when I failed to express my point of view clearly enough, when I should have taken the fifteen minutes or so to write it all down, provide clearer details and data, or follow up on making sure the understanding was there.

4. Would I be comfortable saying what I'm saying to the other person in front of a group?

If the answer is “no,” I need to stop talking. Now. Immediately.

There is no excuse for shitty behavior, for cursing or lobbying personal attacks or losing your temper in the heat of the moment. Acting respectfully is non-negotiable. If you’d be embarrassed to learn that your words were recorded or quoted or broadcast publicly later on, it’s a sure sign that you need to take a deep breath, stop talking, and continue the conversation later.

5. What would happen if I lost?

Be honest. If the answer is “nothing, but my ego would be bruised— and there is little to no negative impact of not getting your way — ask yourself: Is the argument even worth it?

Look, I think I'm right pretty much all the time. I hate to lose arguments, and I relish the last word like Gollum relishes that ring. But I've also learned that, in the grand scheme of things, this type of view isn’t always productive. Sometimes the argument we’re having is trivial, like whether the desks should be arranged rectangularly or U-shaped, and I’m certain U-shaped is better. (Sometimes, we spend an inane amount of time squabbling over the design of bicycle sheds when we should be focusing on nuclear reactors.) So what if I’m right and a U-shaped desk formation is actually a slightly better configuration for collaboration? There are 6,432 more important factors when it comes to workplace productivity, and it’s honestly worse for us to spend another forty-five minutes arguing about desk configurations than it is to flip a coin, pick a direction, and use the remaining forty-four minutes to focus on other more meaningful problems.

You can only influence the things you do and say, but that's a whole lot of power. Power enough to resolve a good lot of the conflicts you encounter. Power enough to proceed with respect, credibility, and empathy. So examine your own behaviors and actions. Ask yourself the hard questions whenever you find yourself slighted or frustrated or butting heads. Own the process of conflict resolution yourself.

The alternative is sitting on your butt waiting for the world to change. (Which, despite John Mayer’s crooning, doesn’t seem to be a particularly results-oriented strategy.)

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.