Bringing Down Darth Vader

Dealing with Conflict

(click below to view the video or read on if you’d prefer!)

Hello dear reader, I’m writing you from London, and today it’s the Royal Wedding!! Did many of you watch it? Ladies, did you think Kate looked gorgeous?

As promised, in this last post on self-confidence, here are more tips to stay self-confident even in the face of conflict: that will give us a chance to apply the 3-step model I showed you last time.

By conflict, I mean someone criticising you harshly. In public. Not constructive feedback between the two of you. It’s also about someone disagreeing with you in a disparaging way. In front of others.

All right, so let’s practice the 3-step model in this situation. Listen comes first. But to listen when you’re under fire, let me first suggest you count to at least three in your head and breathe in through your stomach. Keep cool, don’t rise to the bait.

Another tip to help you stay cool: separate the person from the problem. If you focus on the aggressor and start to think “I hate this guy”, you’re paying attention to the wrong thing: you are not listening. What is the substance of what this person is saying? Discount all the noise, the smelly wrapping around the words, the unpleasant packaging: what does he/she want? If it’s unclear, ask for specifics. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by “This work is crap!” Ask: “Would you tell me how I can improve my work?” People are disarmed by candour.

Another thing: acknowledge the criticism or the disagreement – say something like: “I can see you’re displeased”, or “I can see this piece of work was not to your liking”, or “I can see we disagree”. That shows you listened and, especially in public, it’s hard for someone to keep their level of aggression up in the face of someone who is so obviously well-meaning and attentive to their concerns.

Note too that acknowledging does not mean you agree: you haven’t taken anything onboard.

Lastly, in addition to acknowledging their position and asking for specifics to clarify what the crux of the problem really is, successful listening consists of looking straight at the other person. Do not cast your eyes down!

Now for step two: time to bring the light onto you. In the face of conflict, I encourage you to say what you feel, for example something like “When you speak to me like this, I feel myself getting upset”. Note how I phrased it: I don’t recommend you say “You’re upsetting me” because this could open the door to a useless debate (the person could retort “no, I’m not upsetting you” and then what?). When you only talk about you, you stay on safer ground which nobody can argue with. And you still say how you feel and show the aggressor the negative impact he/she’s having. So with conflict, I suggest you do a variation on the second step of the 3-step model and say how you feel rather than what you think.

Be wary of saying things like: “I think this is unfair” for instance – not because it isn’t but because, again, you are heading straight for a confrontation… Unless you are in the mood – and in the shape – to get on the boxing gloves, I suggest you go down another route.

Let me now tell you about step three in dealing with conflict, the part where you say what you want to happen. At this stage, you have kept your cool and you understand the substance of what the aggressor was raving and ranting about because you were able to separate the person from the problem. You have also stood up for yourself because you have told the brute about how his manner of speech is making you feel. You are therefore ready to ask for what you want.

Two options here: either you see that the aggressor, for all of his/her poor delivery has a point or you consider there is nothing there of real substance. If it’s the latter, and you think the person is just blustering but has no case, then set boundaries. What I mean by setting boundaries is: state your opinion and how it differs from the person and why. Remember KISS. If the person wants something and you want to refuse, then do – very succinctly with a reason but without apologising. In that way, you are literally erecting a boundary between you and the aggressor. And you keep the “dog” out.

If you agree with some of what the person said, then offer a way forward for the two of you, a workable compromise which caters to both the person’s demands and your view. Use language of mutual respect with something like: “In this case, do you think it would be beneficial if we met up and went through the report together?” or “Would it be helpful if I has another pass now I have your comments”. When you talk like that, you are both respectful of yourself and of the other person.

So there it is: a brief review of how to cope with aggression or criticism. It is high-level to keep this post short enough but I’ll be more than happy to tell you more about it if you’d like.

Challenging conversations, confrontations, difficult people – all these things keep us awake at night and I personally found it so helpful to learn how to get better at handling all those. Maybe you might too?

I hope you found this series of posts on self-confidence and I look forward to seeing you again in May for another series. Next month’s topic will be interviews. I’ve seen a lot of discussions on LinkedIn and several among you have been looking around and asking me about how to do well in interviews so it seems fitting.

Let me know what you think by either leaving me a comment (see above) or dropping me a line at!

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