42. Three Tips for Dealing with Conflict

This page is part of the Holacracy Habits series.

As adults, we can choose our words, but not words of adults around us. Meaning, eventually someone is going to piss us off. The most common responses are either to throw our emotions in their face or to pretend to ignore the problem. Either approach prevents us from building and maintaining healthy relationships.

This is relevant for Holacracy because, while the constitution describes our duties to each other as role-fillers (i.e. when performing the work of the organization), it doesn’t say how people should interact with each other person-to-person.

Of course, that’s only a problem if you like someone telling you how to behave.If you prefer making your own choices, well, unfortunately, we still have bad news because now that the rules of the constitution have replaced “the boss”, they’ve removed one pathway for resolving interpersonal conflict: asking the manager for help. Now it's up to us.

But two important caveats.

First, it’s possible interpersonal conflict might not be an issue for your organization. Some Holacracy-powered organizations will be successful without dealing with much if any people stuff (which is why it’s not baked into the rules). After all, different professional soccer teams have different playing styles (e.g. a focus on physical defense, creative offensive plays, etc.). And many championship teams didn’t get along off the field. So, this may be less of an issue for some.

Second, it’s possible that many interpersonal conflicts could be mitigated simply by using existing rules. You might get mad when George acts irresponsible, but maybe requesting a project from one of George's roles (and getting regular updates during tactical meetings) would solve the issue. That's why the constitution defines those duties. So, while Holacracy doesn’t say how to resolve interpersonal tensions, it does provide lots of ways to not need to.

But, of course, some tensions can only be processed by two people sitting down together. And while there are tons of resources on how to have “difficult” or “crucial” conversations, most of us don't take time to absorb them. Well, we have. Here is our distilled list of the most important.

Having Crucial Conversations

Schedule It

Crucial conversations aren't usually comfortable, but just like you don't wake up and suddenly want to go to the dentist, you're not likely to spontaneously shift a casual chit-chat into a serious conversation. Instead, if you need to talk to someone—provide feedback, discuss awkwardness between you, whatever—make sure to schedule it.

But isn't it weird to tell someone you want to have a conversation like that?

Yes, it can be. But there's no need to be mysterious about it. Just say, “I'd like to have a clearing conversation,” and leave it at that. The most important conversations sometimes never happen simply because they never get scheduled.

Request What Was Heard

Everyone wants to feel “heard” or “understood”, but few know how to make that happen. Usually, we keep throwing words out hoping for some vague sign of recognition. Instead, consider the phrase, “Can you repeat back to me what you heard me say?” What better way to ensure you're understood? Even if they disagree, it's very hard to feel misunderstood if they can articulate, in their own words, what you just said. Remember, the point isn't to put them on the spot or test their listening skills. Just explain it's a way for you to make sure you're explaining things clearly. If they get something wrong, clarify.

Acknowledge Your “Story”

The human brain is a story-telling machine. In seconds, it can take a few data points and construct an elaborate narrative. Heroes. Villains. Victims. So, if we want to resolve interpersonal tensions in an authentic way, one that honors both people while also honoring the relationship, few phrases are as powerful as, “The story I'm telling myself....” It's powerful because it creates space to evaluate your own thoughts and emotions, but it also allows you to speak candidly without triggering defensive reactions. By acknowledging your story, you're saying, “Look, this is just my version of what happened.... I'd like to understand yours as well.” All that in just five words. Imagine.