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Podcast Transcript

Conflict Community and Compromise

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:10  
Welcome to "Your Authentic Path to Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we're uncovering what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Well, Marsha, we made it. I mean, today we are wrapping up our six episode series on Managing Conflict and Building Relationships with some final thoughts and resources and a couple of your favorite tools. So we've got a lot to cover today to tie this topic up.

Marsha Clark  0:39  
Well yes, Wendi, we do and we've already covered lots of ground over the previous episodes. And these have been centered on the Thomas/Killman Conflict Model and five unique response modes that they identified. And it's been a deep dive into their work. And today, we're going to introduce a couple of other perspectives as well, including a peek into Patrick Lencioni's work around conflict, especially as it relates to his model on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And then we're going to unpack two of my favorite tools, as you said, for working through conflicts with clarity and confidence.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:15  
Okay, let's dive in. All right, so as I was preparing for today's show, a quote popped into my head. And it felt like such a great way to start this conversation.

Marsha Clark  1:26  
Well, I'm intrigued.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:27  
Ah, I'm sure that you and many of our listeners have heard before this quote. It's from Dr. Viktor Frankl, and it comes from his book "Man's Search for Meaning". And he said, "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Marsha Clark  1:56  
Wendi, I mean, I get chills. If you've ever read the book "Man's Search for Meaning" it is powerful, it is very powerful. And it is my favorite book, and I've read 1000's. So I've heard the quote before, and it really is a good quote for this conversation. So thank you for that addition. And you know, for our listeners who might be unfamiliar with either the book or Dr. Frankl, he was a Jewish doctor and was held as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. And I believe everyone in his family was killed by the Nazis except for a sister who escaped.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:33  
Yes, you're right, Masha. I've done a little research on Dr. Frankl and actually read some quotes by him in another book this week. So this is rather timely because I knew that you wanted me to offer his quote to kick us off today. He passed away in September of 1997 at the age of 92. And according to his obituary from the New York Times, his mother, father, brother, and pregnant wife were all killed in the camps. And the obituary added that he lost everything, he said, that could be taken away from a prisoner except for one thing - the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. Wow. Every day in the camps he said that prisoners had moral choices to make about whether to submit internally to those in power and who threatened to rob them of their inner self and their freedom. And it was the only way that a prisoner could resolve those choices, he said that's what made the difference, that choice, making that choice to be intentional about whether to submit, and also to look forward to something. That's something that I read this week.

Marsha Clark  4:01  
Well, and I will tell you, I say oftentimes and believe this with all my heart that the greatest gift that God gave to us, my personal beliefs, is the free will, the gift of free will. And that, to me, is at the heart of this. I have free will choices many, many, many, many, many times a day. And it's in that space on how I choose to respond is a part of a deep and important part of that free will choice. So that's what makes this quote about the space between stimulus and response so compelling and poignant. There he was, you know, in the epicenter of death, brutality, starvation, separation, you name it, and he recognized that the one thing his captors couldn't steal from him was his inner self and the freedom that comes with that knowledge. So I can see why the quote popped into your head, why we offered it today. You know Dr. Frankl and the other prisoners, they faced extraordinary conflict every day. And in our case, the conflicts we've been referring to throughout this series have been work focused and certainly exponentially less dramatic or traumatic in comparison. But what rings true in both situations is that the space between stimulus and response is still there. It's there for every one of us today. And it is a tool in your toolkit. And I'll just read that quote one more time:  "In that space is our power to choose or respond."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  5:34  
Yes. And in our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Marsha Clark  5:40  
Yes, again, I have goosebumps. Wendi, I'm gonna divert for just a minute. (Sure). When I was working in Poland with one of my clients (and I've been there many times) and I was going to be there over a weekend because I was teaching at the end of one week and at the beginning of next week, and a group of us chose to go to Auschwitz and to Dachau. And when I you know, having read this book many years ago and it being one of my most meaningful books, I will tell you, it is so overwhelming to hear the stories and see it firsthand and to stand in those very places. I know there was a time when I had to come out of the tour and go sit on a park bench in the sort of the common area at the beginning, because I couldn't I couldn't take it. (I bet.) And I feel like I'm a pretty strong, emotionally and psychological person. And it was still overwhelming in so many regards. And so I don't want to start this whole, you know, this whole piece in such a somber way but it is, the power of free will is so big. (Yes.) And I just, I have to say that.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  6:43  
And so while we're on this topic of the power to choose our responses, I know you also wanted to pull in some content from Patrick Lencioni and his model of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I've read this book also. It's quite good, especially as it relates to conflict.

Marsha Clark  7:02  
Yeah, and I'm going to do it at a very high level. So you know, his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has been around for 20 years. And it was a very popular book, because it's a really good book. And one of his messages that I think is especially relevant for our listeners is that not only is conflict inevitable, but it's vital. Now, that's a real twist of terms. It's not only inevitable, it's gonna happen because we're all coming from the places we come. And that by having healthy conflict, it can help teams be better and stronger, and organizations be better and stronger. Now, the caveat here is that the kind of conflict that Lencioni advocates for is what he calls open, constructive, ideological conflict.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  7:47  
Yeah, I remember reading this and wondering how conflict could be a good thing. And then he gave this definition of conflict and the idea of a continuum with a sweet spot right in the middle where people can engage in that healthy, rigorous debate. And it made so much more sense.

Marsha Clark  8:05  
Right. And it is one of my favorite things about this work. The continuum that Lencioni introduced presents these two polarities, and at one end of his conflict continuum is a place called artificial harmony, right? We're just all smiling at each other and just mumbling under our breath.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:22  
And we've got knives behind our back.

Marsha Clark  8:26  
Exactly. It's where everyone is, you know, basically pretending to get along, but it's all surface level. And it really that kind of scenario can't tolerate any conflict.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:36  
Yeah. And it isn't reality or sustainable.

Marsha Clark  8:39  
Well, that's right. And the way he describes it is that if people are holding back on their opinions and honest concerns, that's a bad thing. It's not healthy. And although I'll say that some groups can and do operate, you know, at that surface level for quite some time. And it's usually when things are going well. And then comes a real life serious disagreement or market condition or, you know, whatever, and the whole house of cards falls apart.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  9:06  
Yep. I've been involved in some organizations like that.

Marsha Clark  9:10  
Well you, me, our listeners, I'm gonna bet we all have. And I want to share another model about this in just a minute but I don't want to muddy the waters with too many overlapping ideas at once. So let's stick with Lencioni's continuum for a couple more minutes. So at one end we have the false harmony of pretending there's zero conflict, and at the other end is this combative environment where nearly every interaction is a battle, kind of like US government or Congress, to say the least. Yeah, so sadly, yes. And in Lencioni's model, this is where the intense but ill-intentioned behaviors show up. It's what he calls "mean spirited personal attacks". It's toxic and 100% counterproductive.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  10:02  
I think it would also be helpful for our listeners who aren't familiar with his continuum to explain that line, because it's horizontal, and it describes the spaces between the center and each end. So right of center is what he says is a destructive conflict leading to those counterproductive attacks. And then the left half of the line is where you can have constructive conflict.

Marsha Clark  10:28  
And his continuum model places the sweet spot that you mentioned, Wendi, just left of the center line where as he explains, a team is having every bit of constructive conflict possible, without stepping over that line into the destructive territory.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  10:44  
But is that even realistic? I mean, it sounds great, but can teams expect to stay on the constructive side of a conflict in every situation?

Marsha Clark  10:55  
Well, you're getting to his next point, really, and Lencioni, he has a companion guide for the five dysfunctions and it's referred to often as the field guide. And he clarifies that not only is it not possible to always stay on that left side of the center, but that it's also not necessarily ideal.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:12  
Okay, in what way?

Marsha Clark  11:14  
He explains that these temporary slips, you know, to the other side, to the right side of center, he says it's not only okay that this happens, but that it can be a good thing as long as they're committed to work through it, and "it" meaning the conflict. (Okay.) It's the breakdown before the breakthrough that I often talk about in our program and with coaching clients.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:38  
So I've heard you use that phrase many times. And in this case, it's a chance for the team to dig a little deeper, get a little grittier in their honesty, right?

Marsha Clark  11:49  
That's right. And here's how Lencioni says it: "When a team recovers from an incident of destructive conflict, it builds confidence that it can survive such an event, which in turn builds trust." Yay! And I want to add that the trust that is built is not just between the parties, it's also the internal trust, trusting myself, that I can perhaps speak truth to power or advocate for myself or speak up and tell my truth. Think of the response modes, maybe I can trust myself to be more assertive and stand up for what I need or want, and trust that the relationship isn't going to crumble as a result of me standing in my power.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:49  
What a great point.

Marsha Clark  12:03  
Yeah, and there is an important caveat (as with most things) I want to insert here, that the idea of being very careful about where and when you decide to practice your newfound conflict resolution skill. So I realize that what I'm about to say might sound contradictory to the idea, if you will, of getting conflict out into the open. And my general warning is this: when you can, minimize resolving conflicts in public. And only include those people directly involved in resolving the conflict, and keep the discussion private. And I want to go a little deeper as I do in the book. When you have an audience that is observing you and another person in conflict, your conflict conversation often becomes fodder for the rumor mill, and it can perhaps lead to damaging gossip, and I'll just call it for what it is, gossip. So two women having a conflict is often seen as more newsworthy than two men. And remember that stereotype that all women must get along all the time. And we know that's not a realistic expectation. We're not always going to agree. And when we do disagree, we want to proceed with a leadership mindset. We're civil and professional about it. We don't take everything personally and we generally maintain a strong relationship post disagreement. So don't be the person who starts or spreads the gossip. Be the person who models behaviors that change that stereotype that if women can agree there must be something wrong with them.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  14:12  
Yeah. You know, I don't like to think about how salacious it is when two women argue. But man, the word that springs to mind, you know what it is, cat fight and how that is always a story and how that becomes a hot topic around the proverbial water cooler.

Marsha Clark  14:33  
Well, it absolutely does. And we're all about reinforcing the spirit of women supporting women, so don't do that. So I am not saying don't ever engage in, and that you should never engage in conflict with another woman. Certainly we're not always going to agree. But do it in a mindful and obviously respectful way so that your leadership brand and the reputation of the other woman aren't damaged. And as a leader and especially as a role model for other women I believe I, Marsha Clark, have a responsibility to demonstrate the effective use and timing of my conflict resolution approaches. And that doing this is going to help to build and sustain trust with my team, my peers, colleagues, clients, friends, family, and so on, and that that high trust environment, in turn, helps others feel safe enough to engage in that rigorous healthy conflict.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  15:22  
One thing that I appreciate about Lencioni's model is how he shows the connection between team trust and the ability to engage in healthy constructive conflict.

Marsha Clark  15:35  
Well, trust and managing conflict effectively are definitely connected and we recognize that 20 plus years ago when we originally designed the Power of Self Program, and I will say it was quite affirming when Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions model came out because it reinforced what our message and methods had been for a while.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  15:53  
Absolutely. Earlier, you said you were going to talk about another model but you wanted to wait until we were done exploring Lencioni's model. So what's the other model? And how does it relate to our topic today?

Marsha Clark  16:06  
So thank you for getting me back to that. Yes, we were talking about groups that basically get stuck in that artificial harmony end of Lencioni's continuum. And another one of my favorite models to refer to is from Dr. M. Scott Peck. He introduced this model initially in his book that was entitled, "The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace".

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  16:32  
Interesting. Okay, I've read a couple of books by Dr. Peck. But I haven't heard of this one. So I'm excited.

Marsha Clark  16:38  
Dr. Peck's model for Community Making and Peace, I want to be clear for our listeners, goes through four distinct phases. And the first is pseudo community where the team is basically stuck, you know, in that artificial harmony end of Lencioni's continuum and community members are afraid to speak their truth, afraid to make waves, afraid to confront performance issues or violations of group norms and the like.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  17:06  
Okay, so pseudo community, that sounds like it literally is the first phase of a team. Like when people first come together, they want to get along, they're feeling each other out. So yes, there may be low to no trust in that environment but it sounds like it's something that moves to a second phase.

Marsha Clark  17:27  
Yeah, there's a bit of inevitability, like a learning curve, right? You just gotta go through it. Right. Right. So I also just want our listeners to understand it's definitely a false sense of trust if it exists at all. (Yes.) Right. So for our listeners who are intrigued by the idea of achieving what Dr. Peck calls true community, you know, I'm gonna recommend this book because it is a great resource. And there's material out on the web at So just like it sounds, one community And I love their tagline, which is, and I'm gonna quote this "For the highest good of all."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  18:09  
Wow. That sounds awesome.

Marsha Clark  18:11  
Yes, it's a pretty inspiring site. And they offer some really helpful definitions of the four stages of community building. And the team at One Community describes the pseudo community like this: It's a stage where people pretend to have a balanced and open friendship with one another, and cover up their differences by acting as if the differences do not exist. And pretending differences don't exist and pseudo community can never directly lead to true community. So the goal is to maintain open communication and a commitment to celebrating diversity so people can spend as little time as possible in this pretend stage of community.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  18:57  
Ah. That's a nice clarification.

Marsha Clark  18:58  
So moving on, the second phase of community building is called chaos.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:03  
Oh, look at that. We go from being quiet and not saying anything to complete chaos. Okay.

Marsha Clark  19:08  
Right. I would say smiling, not saying anything, to complete chaos. (Okay.) So, Dr. Peck's research shows that if a group is stuck in pseudo community, the only way to break through it is to go through this breakdown, or the chaos. And so again, One Community offers some clarity on what can be happening in this particular phase. And I'll give you the definition of chaos. When pseudo community fails to work, the members start falling upon each other, giving vent to their mutual disagreements and differences. This is a period of chaos. It's a time when the people in the community realize that differences cannot simply be ignored. Chaos looks counterproductive, but it is the first genuine step towards community building.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:58  
Okay, this is reminding me of your metaphor, a little vignette story that you often use about how a broken bone once mended is often stronger than it was before it was broken.

Marsha Clark  20:10  
That's a great connection, Wendi. And the community or team, or relationship, whatever it is, has to go through this chaos to let go of that artificial harmony, the pretense of community, before it can be truly healed or knitted back together like the new bone.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  20:28  
Okay, I see how this is coming together. So if the second stage of community building is going through chaos, what happens next?

Marsha Clark  20:36  
So the third is called emptiness.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  20:39  
Don't you love these words? They are so provocative!

Marsha Clark  20:41  
They are. I mean, they generate a feeling inside of us. And so One Community, that organization or website, One Community, describes it like this. After chaos comes emptiness. At this stage, the people learn to empty themselves of those ego related factors that are preventing their true entry into true community. And they caution that emptiness is a tough step because it involves the death of a part of the individual (ego) but Peck argues this death paves the way for the birth of a new creature, the community. So think about. It's like pruning dead leaves so that new leaves can form, like a flower.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  21:29  
And I've been in those situations, that place where you just get really honest with someone and just kind of leave everything on the table prepared to walk away if you have to, but hope you don't.

Marsha Clark  21:41  
Yeah, I'm guessing many of our listeners have been in that position. I know I have as well. And you really have to go through an emptying, a letting go, creating a clean slate where you can start fresh and rebuild something better. And that's where we end up at Peck's fourth stage which he called true community, and he describes the stage this way. In genuine community, there are no sides. It's not always easy. But by the time they reach community, the members have learned how to give up cliques and factions. They've learned how to listen to each other and how not to reject each other. Sometimes consensus in community is reached with miraculous rapidity. But at other times, it is arrived at only after lengthy struggle. And just because it is a safe place does not mean community is a place without conflict. It is however, a place where conflict can be resolved, without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace. Don't you love that? (Yes!) It is, however, a place where conflict can be resolved without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace. A community is a group that can fight gracefully.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:07  
Wow! Fight gracefully. I like that. That's...we're needing that right now, aren't we?

Marsha Clark  23:13  
Yes, we are. Yes, we are.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:15  
Okay, I know we want to dig into your favorite tool for working through conflict. And we're going to do that in a minute here. But before we go there, I'm wondering how our listeners can access and leverage the lessons of both Lencioni and Dr. Peck beyond what we've shared here.

Marsha Clark  23:32  
And I am happy to offer that and I do want our listeners... look, I love my book and I know we're not the only book in town. Our listeners know that there is not that book so I strongly recommend these. Both authors have books on the topic of conflict and community building and Patrick Lencioni also has a whole suite of tools from an assessment and a video to a facilitator's guide to help learn more about and lead sessions to overcome the five dysfunctions. The website for those resources is and this is all in caps, THETABLEGROUP.COM, under the tab for topics and resources and link to teamwork. That's how you get to those tools. Dr. Peck's process for community building is intended to be facilitated by specially trained professionals who are deeply immersed in Peck's model and approach for taking a group from point A the pseudo community through chaos and emptying to the final point where they reach true community and a Google search of Dr. Peck's name and the words community building will pull up a number of certified practitioners who can support the experience.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  24:48  
Okay, great. Marsha, thank you for providing these pointers on how to get to these resources.

Marsha Clark  24:53  
Yeah, there are lots of great models and teachers out there today talking about managing conflict and building relationships and I would expect that many of our listeners are familiar with Brene Brown's entire body of work that has elements of how to manage conflict, both our own internal conflicts of dealing with guilt and shame, as well as those that occur between in among, you know, whether it be families, teams, communities, and so on. And we're hoping to do an episode at some point in the future focused on her work as well.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:21  
Oh, that's going to be a popular one.

Marsha Clark  25:23  
Yes, it will.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:24  
And I know we said we're gonna move on. But since you mentioned Brene Brown, it makes me remember one other thing about Patrick Lencioni's idea that constructive conflict can be productive and healthy. And one key ingredient he brings up on how to overcome the Five Dysfunctions of Team is how important it is that people are vulnerable with each other. It's essential to building trust. And Brene Brown says the same thing. So more common threads weaving through on this topic.

Marsha Clark  25:57  
Absolutely. And it's exciting to me to see so many researchers and authors that are tackling content like this and that organizations are recognizing and truly valuing the importance of working through these challenges. And leaders finally understand that these are not soft topics. You know, I had a boss once who said that soft stuff is the hardest stuff for, I mean, like, almost like a contradiction. But decades ago, it was considered the soft stuff. And we now know and have proven again and again that it's critical to achieving both organizational and personal goals.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  26:31  
And I can see how this wave of acknowledgment is affirming and validating for you and your team.

Marsha Clark  26:37  
Well, you know, our lived experience, you know, with the people who helped develop, design, develop and deliver the Power of Self Program, it taught us that authenticity, that vulnerability based trust, that addressing conflict in a healthy way, all of those touchy feely topics were at the core of great leadership. And, you know, dare I say with tongue in cheek, it just took a while for the rest of the world to catch on.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  27:02  
Exactly, exactly. So let's explore the first tool you introduced in this chapter of "Embracing Your Power". Yeah.

Marsha Clark  27:10  
Yeah, and what I call the tool that I developed is the Conflict Strategy Preparation Checklist. And it's what I use and I recommend to help clarify and identify which of the conflict response modes, the five that we covered in previous podcasts, is the best approach for a given situation. And this checklist explores four different questions. The first one is, I have to get clear about what is more important, the relationship or the result? So that's the first question I have to answer and I'm the only one who can answer that. The second is, who is the conflict with? We'll talk a little bit more about, it seems pretty obvious, but it's not always. And then the third is, is this a what or a how conflict? Are we trying to figure out what we're going to do or are we trying to figure out how we're going to do it? And then the fourth is, which of the five conflict mode situations most resembles my situation?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  28:13  
Hmm. Okay, I can see where we're going with that first question on which is more important, the relationship or result? That answer pretty much tells you which axis on the Thomas/Killman model you're targeting, right?

Marsha Clark  28:27  
Yes. So if the relationship is of high importance, I'm going to consider the accommodating or collaborating response because that's the horizontal axes - it's cooperativeness or relationships. If the result is of high importance, I'm likely going to choose a competing or collaborating approach because that's high on the assertiveness or the results axes. So I think it's easiest to use a simple approach to answer this first question. Is the importance of low, medium or high, results or relationship? And if multiple people are involved, the answer to this question (I want our listeners to hear) could potentially be different for each one. So like, if I'm working with one person, maybe the result is the most important. If I'm working with another person on this same conflict, maybe it's relationship. And so take your time, be clear, be thoughtful and intentional.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  29:23  
Okay, the second question from the checklist is, who is the conflict with and I love how you explain in your book that the answer to the question isn't as obvious as we might think.

Marsha Clark  29:34  
Yeah. And I think many people are surprised by how the answer or answers to this quote unquote "simple question" can completely change the direction of their strategy. So the first example I share is where you and a colleague are engaged in a conflict or you're trying to make a decision and you find out that your colleague, the person on the other side of this conversation, is merely doing what their boss told them to do. So the question of who is the conflict with - Is it with a colleague or is it with the colleague's boss? And then the second nuance of this is, are you also doing the bidding of your boss? And so it's important that the people (whoever they may be, whatever role they may have) who are attached to a specific outcome be actively engaged in the conversations. And I call those back and forth interactions, surrogate conversations, right? If I'm doing the bidding of my boss, and you're doing the bidding of your boss, we're just surrogates in this. I also often refer to us as pawns in the chess game. Guess which men are the first off the chessboard? The pawns, right? So these surrogate conversations can create considerable churn and really result in some contentious relationships.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  30:46  
This scenario makes me think of the typically aggravating experience of buying a car. And you think you're negotiating with a salesperson. In reality, it's the mysterious sales or finance manager or some other hidden person behind the curtain you never talked to until the end deal is done.

Marsha Clark  31:06  
That's a great analogy. And I don't know anyone who enjoys that frustrating round of negotiating, you know, whether it's buying a car or trying to quite honestly navigate even the political waters of a work project.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  31:18  
Yeah. And one thing that you point out in the book that I think is important, is the idea that in those round and round situations, your own personal brand could be negatively impacted.

Marsha Clark  31:31  
Yes, it can. And I caution my coaching clients about that all the time. Managers often delegate responsibilities that include tackling tough or dare I say contentious conflict-rich discussions, and the watch out is that you end up being the fall girl for your boss. And in other words, you have all the hard conversations and get the predictable reputation associated with that.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  31:53  
Wow. Yeah, that's definitely worth highlighting. Because I think so many of us only see the positive side in being trusted by our boss to handle something, those tricky situations, but we don't think about the potential downside or the potential unintended hit to our own personal brand.

Marsha Clark  32:11  
That's right, Wendi. And I would just say, again, our boss may ask us to do those things every now and then. But is it a pattern?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:18  
Right! So what's another example of how we might not be clear about who the conflict is with?

Marsha Clark  32:25  
Well, this is when we declare we have a conflict with a certain department, a business unit, a customer, you know, company, or even a geographic region. And it sounds a little silly, but we know we can't have a conversation with the Department of Business to solve a conflict. And I use this example in the book, and I'm gonna offer it here because it's just to me, it speaks volumes, and it was real. I was teaching a leadership class for a client on this topic. And I, you know, somewhat rhetorically asked, who was the conflict with. And the particular team I was teaching that day was an in-tech team from a geographic region of the client company. And when I asked the question "Who is the conflict with?" almost in unison, they answered Europe. And I started laughing, and they asked me why I thought that was so funny because they were serious about it. And I told them, "Well, it's pretty hard to have a conversation with the continent", you know, especially one that speaks several languages. And, you know, in order to resolve a conflict, you have to have a conversation with a human being. And you got to determine who holds the contrary or opposing view because that's critical in efficiently and effectively having a productive conversation. And that's why it's so critical to get clear on who needs to be in the conversation.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  33:48  
Okay. So the third question on our checklist is, is this a "what" or a "how" conflict? And you mentioned earlier about how important it is to get clear on this?

Marsha Clark  34:00  
Yes. So it's critical that we're clear and that we're aligned as soon as possible on the ultimate goal of what we're trying to accomplish. I know I say this in the book, but it does remind me of that Alice in Wonderland, Cheshire Cat interaction where he basically tells her if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. And you've got to know where you're going. You've got to know what you're trying to achieve. So without that clarity, it's easy to wander, to lose focus. And if you keep having the same conversation, you know, or even debate over and over with no resolution, or maybe your discussions are full of distractions or falling down those rabbit holes, then searching for solutions for problems that aren't actually the priority - I mean, there's so many ways that we can get off track. The odds are that you could be dealing with a lack of clarity around whether this is a "how" or a "what" conflict.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  34:54  
Now, I want to pay more attention in meetings to watch for those clues and see if it relates back to this challenge of clarifying the difference between a what or a how conflict. I mean, this could really have a dramatic impact on the productivity of my meeting.

Marsha Clark  35:11  
That's a great intention to put out there, Wendi. Very good.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  35:14  
Alright. The last question on your checklist is pretty much the cherry on top of the cake of everything that we've been covering these past six weeks. And that last question is, which of the five conflict mode situations most resembles my situation?

Marsha Clark  35:31  
Yeah. So at this point in the checklist, I suggest a quick review, if you will, of all the conflict responses. And I use some simple direct questions to help sort through them to identify the optimal approach. So for example, are you trying to reduce tension or buy time? If so that's avoiding. Are you trying to create goodwill? That's a scenario for accommodating. Are you standing up for vital issues such as values, ethics, fairness? That's a good one for competing. Are you trying to gain the psychological buy in and commitment of another person or team of people? Great situation for collaborating. Are you ready to do some give and take to resolve the conflict? And that's for compromising. So once you can get really clear on the answers to those questions, you're ready to use your skills. And then you craft your strategy and key messages. And then you determine the best language to reach your best solution.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  36:36  
Something you can just said about determining the best language made me remember that you have some helpful pointers about that in the book, literally some phrases to possibly use. Will you share some of those examples of the language of conflict for our listeners?

Marsha Clark  36:53  
Yeah, of course, for me, especially as I'm coaching executive leaders, I reinforce the importance of one, being prepared for a potentially vigorous discussion that could occur at any time, in any meeting on any given day. And the second thing I emphasize is the value of using and reinforcing the actual language that we've learned from the Thomas/Killman model. So here's the deal. If you're expecting a conflict, meaning you already know there's going to be some kind of heated debate over I don't know, resources, timing, deadlines, whatever, then you can use the conflict strategy checklist to help you get clear and prepare for the inevitable obstacles that might arise in the conversation. And so when the conflict shows up in the conversation or meeting that you weren't expecting and you definitely weren't prepared to work strategically through the issues in the heat of the moment. And that's when conflict shows up but I wasn't ready for it.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:50  
Right. And isn't this the point in the book where you offer up the wise advice that just because you're invited into a conflict doesn't mean you have to accept the invitation? I just love that. Just because you're invited doesn't mean you have to come!

Marsha Clark  38:06  
Accept the invitation, RSVP "No". It is one of my favorite warnings. Because if I'm not prepared, I'm liable to do some things I don't really want to do, you know, say some things I might not want to say. So don't let others, you know, whether you call it invitation or goading, you know, or baiting, drag you into a conflict conversation that you aren't prepared to have. Don't take that bait.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  38:29  
And yeah, and that might be a magnet in the future. I like that one. So I really also like the recommendation that you offer on how to defer the conversation to another time. It's more of that language of conflict that you mentioned.

Marsha Clark  38:45  
So here's what I say. And I always find that when I'm saying this to a class, they always go now say that again, because they're writing it down because it's very, I think these words can help you. So it would be something like you invite me right? You come across the table at me and you say, Well, I got something to you know, a bone to pick with you or whatever. And I would say back to you Wendi, this sounds like a really important topic to you. I didn't come to this meeting prepared to discuss it and I wouldn't want to give you an incomplete or an ineffective response. So can we meet right after this meeting so that I can better understand the situation and what your specific concerns are?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  39:22  

Marsha Clark  39:23  
And even in that simple, straightforward response you're setting yourself and the other person up to either build or maintain the relationship and potentially to address the issue and achieve the results you both desire. But you can't do that without strategically using, in this case you're avoiding it temporarily, you're using the avoid approach to respectfully and professionally buy yourself time and some space to prepare for the proper response. The space between stimulus and response, right? And by taking this approach you're not giving your power away by allowing someone else to draw you into a potential conflict conversation that you're not ready to have. So you've got to stand strong.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  40:11  
Yes. What I appreciate most about this strategy and example that you just laid out of not getting suckered into somebody else's conflict in the moment is that you can still send a clear message that you recognize the other person's concern and you're willing to explore it. But at the same time, you're emphasizing that you want to be fully present and attentive and prepared. And yes the other thing that I want to point out about this scenario that Marsha laid out for our listeners is that you're initially responding with an avoid approach. But then you're going to be pivoting into a potential collaborative, or competitive or any other scenario. So I think what I want our listeners to hear is just because you've got five conflict response modes to choose from, you can choose one initially, and then pivot to another one, and then conclude the conflict with yet another one. Like this isn't static, you don't have to stay stuck in one.

Marsha Clark  41:17  
It's exactly right. No, I think that's a beautiful point. But it requires clarity and intentionality and using the language of the model itself. (Right.) I am going to avoid this temporarily until I get prepared. And then I say, what's more important, the relationship or the result? Is this a What or a How conflict? Yeah, go right through those strategy checklist questions. So now I can come back to you with a more thoughtful and intentional response. And I may be using any one of the five. (Yep.) The other benefit is it helps you be more mindful about the commitments you're making. And I think that's another important point for our listeners, and if you're being pressured in the moment to negotiate for something, you may not have all the information you need to represent your team or even your organization if it's with a vendor or client or something, most effectively. And I want to go back and get input from my team, or maybe other stakeholders before I commit to any kind of solution. Because I know, personally, when I've engaged in these kinds of conversations and made, you know, incomplete or ill-advised commitments, I've almost always regretted it. My team's wanted to kill me for not getting their input and they certainly don't feel like I supported them. And, you know, it's often caused retractions, or rework, when all sides of the story are shared and understood. And, you know, this can create even more stress and tension between you and your colleague or the person on the other side of conversation or with your team. So. And the last thing I want to add is, it's also critical that you actually follow through with the colleague in the meeting who's trying to invite you into that conflict. Don't just say, I'll get back to you and never get back. Once you have all the facts, again, you can go through your strategy checklist having thoughtfully and intentionally determined which conflict response tool you want to use.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  43:06  
So I can only imagine how these conversations sound so much more grounded and centered coming from that perspective. And you make one other helpful suggestion in the book about using the language from the actual Thomas/Killman model to help address and resolve conflicts.

Marsha Clark  43:24  
Yeah, I do. You know, the language in the model for each response mode is clear, intentional and results oriented. So for example, if I know I'm going in to a conversation with you and I've chosen the accommodate approach as part of my approach to a conflict work experience, I would likely say something like Wendi, I know you prefer that we do "X" and my preference is to do "Y". Our relationship is really important to me. And in this case, I'm going to accommodate your request, and I agree to do "X'.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  43:54  
Wow. Yeah, that example comes across as genuine, caring, thoughtful, and not just because you've said you're going to accommodate me, you know. It's a game changer to me to consider how the language in these models can be used for clarifying and to confirm intention and action. And another thing that I just want to kind of stress real quickly, is back in the example of where, you know, I've come at you and you've said, This sounds like an important topic to you. I didn't come to this meeting prepared to discuss it. And I wouldn't want to give you a complete and incomplete or an ineffective response. Can we meet right after this meeting so I can understand the situation and your specific concerns. (Right.) That's what you originally said that used an avoid conflict response mode. But I also want to stress the idea of timing. (Yes.)  Like you didn't put this person off until can you look at your calendar and get with my assistant and we'll work out something next week or, you know, after the next quarter's meeting or whatever it was. It was that sense of timing to come back and acknowledge or give the other person the feeling that this is important to me now. (That's right.) Or at least not immediately right now, but soon. I've given you a very short timeframe where we're going to have this conversation.

Marsha Clark  45:23  
I have found myself going back immediately and meeting with my team going okay. So and so said this, okay, this seems to be the issue. What do you know about this? You know, school me on it, or tell me what the disagreements are, the issues are, the challenges are. All right, what's your position on this? (Yeah.) What do you think our position as a team needs to be and tell me the reasons, the business reasons or the organizational reasons or the market reasons, whatever they might be. Why are you, you know, supporting or proposing this? And let's look at then the other person. What do they want? So we're back at least initially into know the facts, know the positions and other supporting evidence on each side of the conversation, and then make your decision accordingly.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  46:07  
All right. As one final gift to our listeners on this topic of managing conflict and building relationships, will you give us a quick walkthrough of the Three Column tool that you shared in the book?

Marsha Clark  46:19  
I will. This is one of my favorite tools. It's especially handy when you and the other person are in what I would describe as full on compete mode, my way or the highway. No, my way or the highway. Nope, my way the highway. And you're both battling, you know, to achieve a different result. And really in complete disagreement, or at least it seems that way on the surface. So here's the simple process. And I call it simple. It's hard, but it's but it's easy to format structure, right. So take a piece of paper, you know, it can be again, a whiteboard, three pieces of tablet paper, whatever. And the heading for column one (you're gonna make three columns) is "things we agree on". And in this column, you're gonna write down all the things on which you can agree. And that might include budget timeline, deliverables, what resources or staff you have available, any pertinent contract terms, conditions, regulatory requirements, you know, all of that, and write down as many things as you can. And once you agree on what you've included in that column, you say out loud, these things are no longer in play relative to what we're trying to accomplish here.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  47:34  
Yeah, you know, we talk a lot about psychological safety in our episodes. And this point that you're making made me realize that by focusing first on what you agree on, it already starts building that bridge between the two competing sides.

Marsha Clark  47:51  
That's right. It's a great observation, Wendi. And it is a strategic, it's very strategic to start with that column, column one things we agree on. And then, you know, moving on from that, we've got these off the table, so to speak. So this in column two, you're going to write the heading, "willing to compromise". Okay. So at this step, you will determine and agree upon and write down those things that you and the other person are willing to engage in a give and take exchange. So it might include a conversation on moving a deadline to an earlier date if the other person's willing to reallocate resources or to work on the deadline deliverables. And once you've agreed on the give and take exchange, you can basically now move those items into column one, things we agree on.

Yeah, that's a very satisfying moment to shift those items over to column one. It feels like a big old check mark.

Right. And it is satisfying. It's like, now those are, you know, we can check those off. It's a very visual way of showing progress that's been made. And again, you're building on that momentum. And then column three is, you know, labeled, I affectionately call it "what's left" because we've broken it down now. And having used this approach for really over 20 years, I can tell you that about half the time, there's nothing left to put in column three, right, because we broke it down. We dealt with it in smaller parts, not so big an elephant we can't get our arms around it, we've handled it. What you've done was break that down, and you've resolved those smaller items one at a time. And that's about half the time and the other half the time, they're generally a pretty short list of outstanding items to resolve.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  49:37  
So for those items, those times when you do have items left in column three, you offer a couple of suggestions on some next steps.

Marsha Clark  49:45  
Yes. And usually what happens is that you can circle back and put the unresolved items back through theThree Column tool. So let's just say there's some we have not been able to resolve this issue. Now we're going to start with new three columns. Right? Take that one left line item and say, what do we agree on? Again, I have a column one and what we can agree on about this line item. Second, what can we agree to compromise on? And then again, you say what's left? And you may realize that you can't answer the questions, you know, when you get to that last part without conferring with others maybe who aren't in the meeting with you. So it may require a timeout, you know, to go pull in other stakeholders or do some research. But in any case, you're whittling away at the line items one by one until you either come to a full agreement or realize that you need to escalate the issue.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  50:40  
Yeah, this is where you introduced me to the concept of escalating out before escalating up. And so will you share what you mean by that with our listeners?

Marsha Clark  50:51  
Yes. And I add that it's a novel concept for many people to do this. And I think by nature, we all assume escalate only means escalating up, but when we really think about it, we may do this without realizing it. So when we reach an impasse and some sort of disagreement, oftentimes we will seek the input from others, such as subject matter experts, or we'll pull in best practices from industry leaders, that sort of thing. And maybe what I need is a stronger business case. And I can invite in someone who can provide, whether it be compelling personal experience or data to reinforce my case for me. So bottom line, I want our listeners, I want to encourage you to escalate out before escalating up and I would want to explore every avenue before you have to get your boss involved. You don't want your boss one, to thank you can't resolve your own conflicts or challenges. And and there's one other piece. Don't hoard this strategy. Share this thinking with your colleague as well because you want to encourage them to go out before they go up. And it may give, I found that it gives both sides renewed energy to resolve those outstanding items because we all know that when the boss gets involved, everything gets opened up again. And it gets messy and I'm not seen as being able to handle my own issues.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  52:18  
Exactly. So, but what if you do have to eventually pull your boss in? What tips do you have for us on how to do that effectively?

Marsha Clark  52:27  
Yeah. So it's really important that you're crystal clear with your boss that you and your colleague have already resolved all these issues.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  52:37  
All these 99 things!

Marsha Clark  52:39  
Yeah, so these are not on the table for you, boss, to have to resolve for us. We've agreed to these, because the last thing you want to do is open up all those items that you've already resolved in, you know, I'd say in other words, no second guessing, on them. So narrow the scope if you do have to bring your boss in and clarify that you only need him or her to weigh in on these few items and be very specific with what you need. And you and your colleague will want to align your strategies on escalating to your bosses. I mean, that's another kind of thing to agree on, agreeing on deadlines for a decision or a resolution. Or maybe your goal is to strive for really good outcomes. But do stay focused on the outcomes you're trying to achieve.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  53:23  
Stay focused and strive for good outcomes. I think that right there is a great place to wrap up not only this episode, but our entire little mini series here on Managing Conflict and Building Relationships. So Marsha, what are two or three main points from today that you want to reinforce?

Marsha Clark  53:41  
Well, this is a tough one, because we talked about a lot to highlight. So I'll start with this. Number one, you know, constructive conflict, or as Lencioni describes it, rigorous healthy debate, is a sign of a high performing team. So it's not a problematic thing. It's a sign of a high performing team, and actively seeking opportunities to engage at that level of discourse, that constructive conflict, makes the team stronger, more innovative and actually builds trust. And remember that to build true community, we will likely have to have some breakdowns and move through the chaos before we get to the breakthrough. So the myth that all conflict is bad, I hope we busted it in this mini series. And then the second reinforcing point is to learn about the Thomas/Killman model and the five conflict response modes. To learn it is really just the beginning of increasing our own effectiveness. We need to be intentional about deciding which approach is most appropriate to resolve a particular conflict. And the questions from the strategy preparation checklist that I shared with our listeners today can help create that clarity and focus and then the use of the Three Column tool is perfect for when you find yourself at an impasse with someone. And, you know, I realized the last point isn't a recap, but it's something that I want to be surely with every one here. And that's whenever possible, you need to have these conversations face to face. And even if you can't meet in person, at least use some sort of video or virtual technology to work through the issues. When we use email or text or group messaging platforms, it's a danger, right? We want to eliminate the opportunity to mis-read emails, excuse me, emails, texts or group. We want to be able to observe as much as we can those contextual clues from body language, tone or volume. And I would offer to our listeners that if an email has gone back and forth without resolving the issue, schedule a meeting or pick up the phone.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  55:57  
So if you've got the 5, 6, 10, 20 layer deep reply to all...

Marsha Clark  56:04  
and you keep adding people to the Blind Carbon Copy.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  56:08  
Right, exactly. So Marsha, those are some great tips. Thank you for sharing those.

Marsha Clark  56:13  
I remember one last point that I want to make, too. I love how you kicked us off today with the quote from Dr. Frankl:  "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. And in our response lies our growth and our freedom." And my wish for our listeners is that they grow in confidence, and that we choose to be strategic and intentional as we engage in vigorous, healthy, constructive conflict for the greater good.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  56:47  
All I have to add is "Mic Drop". Thank you, listeners, for joining us today on our journey of authentic powerful leadership. Please download, subscribe and share this podcast wherever you're listening. Please share this with your women and men business colleagues. Please visit Marsha's website at for links to the tools that we talked about today, resources we talked about today, and subscribe to her email list to stay up to date on everything that's going on in Marsha's world. And if you haven't gotten her book, please consider getting "Embracing Your Power". You know, now we're looking at holidays. This is a fantastic gift. Some people are graduating from college or high school here at mid semester. So please consider this a gift for the leaders in your life.

Marsha Clark  57:38  
Well, thank you for that, Wendi, and this mini series on conflict, I appreciate your pointing out, is not just for women. These are basic principles for every single person in the universe that I wish we all could begin to deploy and use some of these frameworks and tools and language. And so we do hope that you'll share. And if you've got a specific question or situation that you need help with, let us know that. You can send an email to my website. I will get back to you. We'll schedule a call or I'll send you tools or whatever might be useful for you. So do let us hear from you around all of that. And because conflict in and of itself can be so difficult for women in particular, our need to support one another in those moments is ever more important. And so be there for each other. And again, as I always close, here's to women supporting women!

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