Critical Conversations: Connect in Conflict

Difficult work conversations are unavoidable. Whether you’re addressing conflict, performance issues, or personality clashes, these “critical conversations” can be hard to initiate and even harder to steer to a positive outcome.

In an August 23 GovLoop online training, Jennifer Oribello, Senior Learning and Organization Development Specialist II at the Federal Reserve Board, and a certified Crucial Conversations trainer, showed the path for turning conflict into collaboration.

Here are her key steps.


Ask yourself:

  • What have I experienced or observed?
  • What do I notice myself thinking or assuming about the other person?
  • What might their perspective be?
  • How am I feeling about this situation?
  • Why is this situation important to me? Why is it important to our shared work?
  • What am I hoping for as a result of this conversation?
  • How can I show care for myself, for the other person, and for our work?

Manage Your Mindset

“Accept that conflict as normal,” Oribello said. “It’s part of life, it’s part of work, and trying to avoid it isn’t going to work. View conflict as an opportunity to improve.”

Describe, Don’t Demonize

Describe your intentions for the conversation. Use contrasting statements like, “It’s not my intention to minimize your work. It is my intention to help you put your best work forward.” Invoke your mutual purpose by casting the issue in terms of shared goals. “I want to talk with you about the errors in your report because I care about our work, and I also care about your growth.”

Then move on to describing your experience. Your preparation will help you stick to what you know and avoid hurtful speculation. Describe:

  • The situation: Who, where, when
  • The behavior: Be specific about what you saw or heard
  • The impact: What happened as a result of the behavior? Include what you thought or how you felt.

Listen and Learn

Use active listening to learn the other person’s experience of the situation.

  • Maintain safety. “Talk in a way that helps maintain safety in the conversation,” Oribello said. Stay calm and curious. You’re there to learn, not to argue. Ask for a break if things get too stressful.
  • Make sure you understand their experience and perspective. Use tentative language like “It sounds like you’re saying …”and open questions: “Is there anything I wasn’t aware of that would help me understand?”  

Focus on the Future

  • Focus on the future, not the past. Worry less about assigning blame and more about how you want things to work next time.
  • Agree on desired behaviors, outcomes, or steps for the future. If the problem is a big one, at least agree on what piece of it you’ll tackle next.


“When we practice the skills to handle conflict with care and do that repeatedly, we model for others how to handle conflict with us. It’s hard in the moment but just keep practicing it.

When we approach people with care, they’re more likely to reciprocate. When you listen to others, they’re more likely over time to listen to you.”

This online training brought to you by:

Photo by Timur Weber on www.pexels.com

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