We’re giving you an in-depth look into how to resolve conflicts in this Q&A interview with Executive Coach and Conflict Resolution expert Helen Dayen. Helen is a Wall Street veteran turned executive coach with two decades of experience in high-stakes environments. Twice named “Top Coach in New York”, she helps companies and ambitious leaders become power players, especially while navigating conflict and business challenges. The goal? To drive revenue and get her clients the respect and success they deserve.
What is conflict resolution?
Well, let’s break it down. Essentially, conflict resolution is the process of helping people sort out their disagreements. These disagreements can take many forms. It could be a simple misunderstanding, a serious disagreement, or even unspoken tension and frustration between two or more people.
In conflict resolution, our job is to figure out what’s going on with each person involved. We aim to get them back to a point where they can actually hear and understand each other without the resistance and tension that’s been getting in their way.
This whole process isn’t just for professional situations either, even though that’s where I mainly focus my efforts as an executive and leadership coach. It’s also super useful in personal situations, like disagreements with family, friends, or partners. The goal is always the same – to clear the air, sort out the issues, and get people communicating effectively again.
Do you think that women are less comfortable with handling conflict? And if so, why is that so?
No, I don’t think comfort with conflict is determined by gender. In fact, I believe it has more to do with our upbringing and experiences growing up. Think about it. When we come across conflict as adults, we often revert to our younger selves. If we grew up in an unstable environment where conflict escalated into something scary, we might shy away from any form of disagreement. It’s like a defense mechanism we learned as kids.
But some people are fine with conflict because they saw healthy conflict resolution modeled growing up. Also, it’s important to clarify what I mean by “conflict”. There are two types: rational and emotional.
Rational conflict is a disagreement with the goal of finding a solution to move forward. Emotional conflict, on the other hand, gets personal. It’s the “me against you” type of conflict where people usually believe there can only be one winner. This type of conflict can feel quite toxic.
When it comes to the workplace, we need a certain level of rational conflict to make progress, be creative, and innovate. However, emotional conflict, which often has a negative connotation, can make things quite uncomfortable.
So, are women more uncomfortable with conflict? I don’t think so. But there’s a cultural factor at play here. There’s an unconscious bias suggesting women should be more agreeable or accommodating, causing them to be less likely to voice their disagreements. It’s not about being uncomfortable with conflict, but rather about the possible negative consequences of being seen as argumentative or assertive. This perception problem is more of a societal issue than an issue with women’s comfort level with conflict.
How do businesses work with you to learn this skill? Can the same principles be applied to personal conflicts as well?
I don’t just teach conflict resolution. I actually help businesses resolve their most pressing conflict. Conflicts that might slow down their growth, create toxic cultures, cause teams to fall apart and money to be lost. Here’s an example: suppose you’ve got two key figures at a company—say the head of finance and the head of marketing. Both want the business to thrive, but they might butt heads on the best way to do that. Like, marketing might want to invest in more advertising, while finance is looking to tighten the budget. This clash of priorities can stir up trouble.
When the tension starts to impact their work—maybe they stop communicating properly, or start trying to one-up each other—that’s when a company might call me in. My first step is to get to the root of the problem. Often, I find a lot of misunderstandings going on, especially if folks have been relying too much on text-based communication like emails or slack messages. It’s so easy for things to be taken out of context.
So, I start by getting these people together, ideally in person or on a video call. I guide them to find shared goals and understand each other’s perspective. We also try to focus less on personal issues, which can make conflicts more emotional. Instead, we aim for healthy, constructive disagreements that can actually lead to growth and progress.
As for your second question, yes, these same principles can definitely be applied to personal conflicts as well. The key is understanding, open communication, and focusing on the issue at hand rather than personal attacks.
What are some common misconceptions about conflict resolution or management that you often come across?
Good question! One of the biggest misunderstandings I come across in my line of work is this: folks often think once a conflict is sorted, everyone should be all chummy and friendly, just like that. But, let me tell you, that’s not quite how it works.
You see, successful conflict resolution isn’t about making everyone the best of pals. Instead, it’s about helping people figure out how to work or coexist together, even if they don’t always see eye to eye. It doesn’t mean you’ll agree on everything or start hanging out together after work. It simply means you’ve found a way to function together without all the negativity.
Another aspect people often get wrong is they think that once a conflict is resolved, you can wash your hands of it. Again, not quite true. Even after a resolution, it’s essential to keep up the good habits you’ve picked up during the resolution process.
So, in a nutshell, the biggest misconceptions about conflict resolution? One, that it ends with everyone becoming besties. And two, that it’s a one-and-done kind of thing. Real conflict resolution is about understanding each other better, building healthier habits for interaction, and continually working on maintaining them.
What inspired you to pursue a career in conflict resolution and become an expert in this field?
I was inspired to pursue a career in conflict resolution because I have always been a natural peacemaker. I am a Libra, us Libras are all about balance and harmony, and that’s me, to a tee. I’ve always felt a bit rattled when people around me argue or there’s tension in the air.
From a very young age, I was the peacemaker, the one who could see and understand both sides of an argument. It didn’t matter if it was a family squabble or a playground fight, I found myself empathizing with everyone involved, trying to support both sides. It was like second nature to me, a part of my personality, I guess. So, when it came to picking a career, conflict resolution just seemed like the perfect fit.
But here’s another thing – during my coaching work, I found a common thread. People would approach me, not necessarily saying they needed help with ‘conflict resolution’, but more along the lines of, “I can’t get along with this colleague and it’s affecting my work,” or “I can’t seem to win over this person, and it’s hindering my progress.” That’s when it hit me. People usually seek out coaching when they’re facing some kind of friction that’s stopping them from achieving their goals. Sometimes, that friction is internal – we put our own barriers up – and we work on that. But more often than not, the friction comes from interactions with others, from not being on the same page or failing to get their buy-in. This is where conflict comes in. Pushing your own agenda or trying to work around others only leads to more friction and conflict. By providing frameworks for understanding and resolving conflict, I could help people gain the confidence to face difficult conversations head-on. And this, in turn, could prevent conflicts from escalating and becoming harmful roadblocks in their professional journeys. That is how I found myself in the thick of the conflict resolution field, helping people navigate through their disputes and disagreements.
What are some key strategies or techniques that you find effective in empowering women to participate in conflict resolution?
Alright, let me share with you a little gem that I’ve been using for a decade now, a framework I created called the MOA model. Trust me, it’s a game changer when it comes to conflict resolution.
Now, MOA is an acronym. M stands for Me. Think about what’s going on with you, what’s your endgame, and where’s your head at? Whenever you’re in a tussle, it’s crucial to have a crystal-clear idea of your own state of mind and what you want out of the situation. For example, when I ask folks, “What’s your aim in this dispute?” they usually need some time to mull it over. Often, they come up with something broad, but the real deal lies in the specifics. That’s why it’s essential to take time to really figure out what you want, and understand your feelings, your hot buttons, and the assumptions you’ve made.
Next up in the MOA model is O, which stands for Other. This part’s all about trying to see the world from the other person’s shoes. Ask yourself, what’s their side of the story? What do they care about? How do they feel? You might discover perspectives or assumptions you hadn’t considered. In the heat of a conflict, we’re usually hesitant to do this, but it can be incredibly enlightening. In my role as a coach, I can hold up a mirror, prompting people to take a fresh look at things and explore the other person’s viewpoint in depth.
Finally, we have A, for Align, arguably the most important step. Here’s where you weave together your objective and the other person’s values, creating a harmony. When you talk to them, speak their language, appeal to their values. So, let’s say you’re the head of marketing and you’re butting heads with the head of finance about upping the advertising budget. Instead of only focusing on why marketing needs more money, try explaining how it will help the company financially. Say, “Hey, I know you’re worried about the cash flow and keeping the business afloat, and I appreciate your vigilance. I’m working towards the same goal. By boosting our advertising, we’ll attract more clients and increase sales, which means more money in the bank.”
The crux of the MOA model is this – always align your message to the listener’s perspective. I find it works wonders, especially when I work through it one-on-one with my clients.
In your expertise, what are the unique challenges women face when it comes to resolving conflict and how can they overcome these challenges?
I get asked a lot about the unique challenges women face in handling conflict. Here’s the deal: there’s this double standard when it comes to how women communicate. If a guy’s assertive, he’s praised. But when a woman’s assertive, it can be taken negatively. Now, I’m not one for asking you to change who you are; authenticity is key. But, it’s essential to recognize this double standard and learn to work with it, considering your work culture and the folks you’re dealing with.
Another hurdle that many women, not all, but quite a few, stumble over is a reluctance to voice their views or disagree because they don’t want to rock the boat. They value harmony and peace. In general, women are often more empathetic, more emotionally intelligent, and more inclined towards collaboration rather than competition. And these qualities? They’re strengths, not weaknesses.
But here’s the thing, these very strengths can sometimes make us shy away from conflict, fearing that it might ruin relationships. What I try to tell women is that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you’re stirring up trouble. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to put those fabulous collaboration and empathy skills to use and navigate through disagreements in a healthy, constructive manner. Avoiding or being passive-aggressive about conflicts often just makes things worse. So it’s vital to take conflict head-on and use it as a tool for growth and improved relationships.
Do I need help in conflict, if difficult conversations don’t scare me?
So this is a great question, and it’s relevant for me. I’ve always been the direct type, not afraid to speak my mind. But, here’s the twist: when it comes to conflict, even I can sometimes hold back.
Why? Well, just like the story I shared earlier, I’ve noticed that I often prioritize others’ needs above my own. If that sounds like you too, then, you might need a little help handling conflict, even if you’re a whiz at straightforward communication. Here’s the deal: being good at conflict isn’t just about speaking out. It’s about voicing your needs and viewpoints. And if you’re downplaying your own importance, thinking others’ perspectives matter more, then it’s time to step up your game in conflict situations.
But there’s another thing. If you’re someone who dives straight into conflict with total directness, it could backfire. You could inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings or trigger an angry response, escalating the conflict even further. So, it turns out that being a straight-shooter doesn’t automatically make you good (or bad) at conflict resolution.
There’s so much more to consider for successful conflict handling. It’s about taking the time to slow down, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and understanding their perspective. Plus, framing your viewpoints in a way that resonates with them can be an invaluable tool when it comes to smoothing things over. Remember, it’s not just about being right, it’s about resolving the issue in a way that works for everyone.
Can you share a memorable success story or case study where your expertise made a significant impact on resolving a conflict?
Yeah, I’m happy to.
Picture this: Two bigwigs from a company, used to be a boss-subordinate duo, now turned peers. They’ve got to collaborate, but old habits die hard. The one who used to be the boss still behaved like the other’s superior, not a teammate. Naturally, this rubbed the other person the wrong way and set the stage for a hostile work environment. Years passed, and their relationship just kept going downhill until they stopped talking altogether.
Things were so bad, shouting matches erupted in front of their teams, right on the office floor. You can imagine what a toxic atmosphere it was! That’s when I stepped into the picture.
My first move? I had a one-on-one chat with each of them to understand their anger and frustrations. What struck me was that both felt hurt and unacknowledged by the other. With them avoiding each other at all costs—except for those ice-cold emails copied to their entire teams—there was no chance for these feelings to surface.
The solution, though simple, made a world of difference. I realized they needed a safe space to express their hurt and receive acknowledgement from the other. So, I arranged a meeting with both of them.
I remember that meeting so clearly. They expressed their feelings, and for the first time, they really heard each other. Each said, “I’m sorry you felt this way. I didn’t realize it.” You could feel the tension in the room evaporating. It was a powerful moment.
It’s funny how, as an outsider, you can see the steps that need to be taken, but when you’re tangled up in a conflict, it’s harder to see through the fog of hurt feelings. I was glad I could cut through that fog for them, helping them rethink their approach and find ways to work together effectively. The simple act of listening and acknowledging can do wonders, don’t you think?
Where can people find you?
Alison + Delia