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Podcast Transcript

Denial Aint Just A River

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:10  
Welcome to "Your Authentic Path to Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we uncover what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Well, Marsha, welcome back.

Marsha Clark  0:23  
Thank you very much.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:24  
And today I know is a big day for us because we're kicking off a six part series on Managing Conflict and Enriching Relationships. So all of these episodes are based on chapter nine of your book, "Embracing Your Power". So we're pretty much dissecting that chapter one section at a time.

Marsha Clark  0:43  
Well, you're right, Wendi. And we've been planning this mini series from the very beginning. And here we are on chapter nine, one of the final chapters in the book, and we're here. And, you know, these episodes are based on a conflict model that was originated by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. And their model has been translated, they've done the work to translate it into the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument, or, as we often call it, the TKI, which is an assessment tool that analyzes really what our typical, or even our default reactions might be to different conflict scenarios. And I've found their work to be really helpful in knowing more about what my options are and when to use each of these five conflict, what they refer to as response modes.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:34  
Okay, got it. So let's jump in then to the first of our six episodes on Managing Conflict. And, you know, you actually open this chapter in your book with an interesting anecdote. And you share it sometimes that sometimes clients call you looking for workshops on how to, quote, "eliminate conflicts" in their organization. And that sounds like an impossible task. So I love your response to those requests.

Marsha Clark  2:01  
Well, that's right. You know, just as I'm kind of chuckling now, I kind of laugh and tell them I want to know! I want to take that workshop, too!

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:09  
Yeah, no kidding. Sign me up. So is that because they're asking for something virtually impossible, to eliminate conflict?

Marsha Clark  2:17  
Well, pretty much yes. And we say this a lot in our programs, when we get to this topic, where two or more are gathered, there is likely to be a conflict. There will be a conflict. It's inevitable in relationships. And, you know, working together counts as a relationship. So whether you're my peer, my colleague, as well as a family member or neighbor, that when two or more... yeah, it's likely.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:45  
Yeah, yep. So I get that on an intellectual level. But there's also a part of me that wants to imagine, or maybe just pretend, that there's some Nirvana type of relationship or work environment where 100% harmoniousness can happen, and there's zero conflict.

Marsha Clark  3:05  
You know, this is the well, why can't we all just get along? Yeah. That's kind of what we think but you're really now getting into the name of the episode "Denial (denying that there's something out there that allows us to be conflict free) Ain't Just a River."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  3:22  
Right. So I wondered what the title had to do with managing conflict.

Marsha Clark  3:25  
Well, you know, of course, it's got a dual meaning. And first is this overall denial that many people have that, you know, there even is any conflict in their relationship, or the team they work on, or the organization they work in. And, you know, some leaders are so unaware, or they've created such what's often referred to as an echo chamber that they don't see or hear any conflict, not because it doesn't actually exist, because it always exists. But because they've either stuck their heads in the sand so deep that they can't recognize or admit to it, or they refuse to acknowledge any conflict and the people around them are too afraid to tell them anything different.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  4:05  

Marsha Clark  4:06  
When I have people think of a conflict, because we go through an exercise in many of the programs, and they'll say, Well, I can't really think of one. And, and I'm like, I want to live your life. And then come to find out, it's because they avoid them so much. So we're gonna talk about that today. But I just want to point that out, okay, that you may not recognize it because you have defaulted or built the pattern up so much of just avoiding it that you don't even recognize it when it comes knocking on your door.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  4:35  
So the first reference to denial is the refusal to recognize that a conflict actually exists. So what's the second?

Marsha Clark  4:43  
So the second reference to our, you know, this first conflict mode which is "avoiding", as I mentioned, is that it can be based in denial and we're going to explore how when we just deny that there is conflict, that's not healthy or productive. And when it comes to managing conflict and building strong relationships, you're going to have to acknowledge that you've got conflict and work your way through it. Because what I often say is when I just suppress it, suppress it, suppress it, it comes out ugly. When it comes out, it comes out ugly. So it's like that time bomb. So that whole avoid thing.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  5:19  
Right. Okay, that totally makes sense. So, you do teach workshops, though, on conflict. And like we said, it's an entire chapter in your book. So what's the difference between your approach and what this proverbial client is asking for when they say they want a workshop on eliminating conflict?

Marsha Clark  5:39  
Well, the key word there is "eliminate". Like you said, or mentioned earlier, and that's not an option, nor is it even a goal because it's not healthy and productive. So we know that conflict can be invigorating in relationships and organizations, that it can expand our thinking it can help teams, challenge ideas, or the status quo. And it really supports the process of gaining buy in and in fact, helps deepen trust because you're being real with me.

Okay, so I was gonna ask, how does it deepen trust to engage in conflict, but that idea of being real, I like that.

Yeah, when you can actively and respectfully disagree with someone else then you can openly explore all options and alternatives, and even the ones that are contrary to what might be the popular opinion in society or in the room or in the conversation with the person and you do so in a way that doesn't make the other person feel wrong. Then you know you've got a healthy conflict that builds the foundations of trust. And we engaged, we disagreed, you spoke your truth and I listened, I spoke mine and you listened, and we ended up with some solution. And that process done well is what builds trust. And to your other part of the question about what's different in the work I do isn't about eliminating conflict, I teach about managing conflict. That's the word I choose to use. And it involves working through a conflict effectively, with the additional goal of maintaining or even enhancing relationships in the process. And my favorite quote that I think speaks to women on this topic is by Margaret Cavendish, and it says "One can be of a different opinion and still be my friend."

And I've long believed that if my relationship with another person, or in this case, a woman, is so fragile that we can't disagree, well, it wasn't really a very strong relationship to begin with. And it reminds me, you know, I hear this often, and I've experienced it personally with my granddaughter. She, when she was five or six years old, she came in and she said, she had been playing with a little girl the neighborhood and comes into the house and says, Trisha is not my friend. I'm like, Well, why isn't she your friend? Well, because she wanted to play house and I wanted to play school. So, I mean. But that's what we do as adult women too, this idea of one can be of a different opinion and still be my friend. We don't have to declare, Wendi, that you're not my friend, because I wanted to do x and you wanted to do y.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:17  
Right, right. Well, and not to overstate the obvious but what typically drives conflict in the first place? Why is it so inevitable in our relationships?

Marsha Clark  8:28  
Yeah, so one of the main reasons that it's so inevitable is because we're all from different backgrounds and we approach situations from our own unique perspectives. And, you know, I'll quote from the book, that "Each of us brings our life experiences, our beliefs, values, and points of view to every conversation. And because those experienced beliefs and values vary widely, the probability is high that we will live and work with people whose ideas and approaches will be very different from ours."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  9:00  
That's so true. I mean, even if we're living or working with someone who's had a very similar life experience, there still are going to be those few critical differences that could spark a dispute on what's right or how to do something a particular way.

Marsha Clark  9:16  
Yeah. And the research shows and I offer this in the book that conflict occurs most often when it's time to make a decision. Are we going to do red or are we going to do blue? Are we going to do yes or are we going to do no? Are we going to go fast or are we going to go slow, that kind of thing. And so let me add to that the decision doesn't even have to be, you know, some major business defining decision to generate conflict. It can be, you know, something as seemingly insignificant as, you know, choosing the food vendor for the annual team lunches.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  9:47  
Yeah. And what you're saying reminds me of the betrayal continuum that we talked about in episode 23 titled "In the Eyes of the Betrayed". Just because you think that the decision about choosing the lunch vendor is insignificant doesn't mean that it's a minor decision maybe for me or for you. So now we have a conflict. And it's not only about the vendor choice, it's also about you or me because you think it's no big deal and I think it's a big deal or vice versa. And, you know, to somebody in the situation, it's really important.

Marsha Clark  10:22  
That's absolutely true. We've now embellished the conflict, if you will. And so the spark for the potential conflict can come from anywhere. So anytime we're faced with a decision that involves, you know, resources or deadlines, or our approach for handling how we're going to deal with customers or employee retention. I mean, there's just the list is never ending, that can that basically, conflict is going to be brewing when we're trying to answer the fundamental question, are we going to do it your way, or we're going to do it my way? And, you know, again, I talk about this in the book, because the idea here is to figure out how do we move through those decision making and conflict situations with intentionality and effectiveness, two key words in this whole conversation. And my life experience is that the more we have to talk about it and disagree again and again, so right we didn't come to an agreement so yeah, we're gonna meet again tomorrow and meet again the next day and meet again, the more I'm putting my relationship with you at risk because you know, it's getting ever more personal, you know. So the conflict morphs from being about the issue, your way or my way, to now being about you and what a jerk I think you're being.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:37  
Oh my gosh! Yeah, really good point. Yeah, the conflict morphs from being about the issue to being about you and me and how we're behaving and how I'm feeling betrayed, or you're feeling betrayed. And, you know, I think that's part of why I've really been looking forward to kicking off this series, because this is such an important topic for teams, organizations, and even families and marriages.

Marsha Clark  12:03  
I agree 1,000%. Our goal's for working through the Thomas-Kilmann model, and so that we can get smarter and develop some strategies, additional strategies for moving through these kinds of conflict situations more intentionally and competently for greater effectiveness.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  12:26  
Right. Okay, so for our listeners who have never heard about or seen the Thomas-Kilmann model, why don't you provide us some background on it and set the groundwork for how we're gonna dive deeper into "avoiding" as a conflict response.

Marsha Clark  12:40  
Gotcha. I want to offer first of all, for our listeners, you can go find the model on the internet, pretty simple search. So you can type in Thomas-Kilmann model, and you'll have dozens of examples that pop up on the screen that gives you the visual that you can get to pretty easily. But the model itself is built off of two axes. And so if our listeners are in a place where they can draw this out, if they can't, don't have the ability to do a quick search for it, so you're basically drawing two sides of a box, the left hand side and the bottom. Think about it's like a giant L. So for the left side, make a line that goes from the bottom left corner up, so you're creating the vertical axis, and then your base axis is going to start at the same point bottom left, but it's going to go across horizontally. Okay, you've got a vertical axis and a horizontal axis.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  13:45  
Right. Okay, so how are the lines labeled?

Marsha Clark  13:48  
Alright, so that's the next step.  For the vertical line, write the word "assertiveness". And for the horizontal line, write the word "cooperativeness". So think of these lines as arrows or continuums. So at the base of the line where they intersect, where they meet, that is the low end of both continuums. So both the assertiveness and cooperativeness start at that intersection point. Then at the top of the assertiveness line, write the word "high" and do the same thing at the far right end of the horizontal or cooperativeness line. Okay. And it is then the interplay of highs and lows on these two axes that give us Thomas and Kilmann's five different conflict responses. So high assertiveness means I'm really focused and intentional on getting what I want or need, so I have a high drive for achieving results my way. High cooperativeness, sort of the other extreme, if you will, means I'm focused on the other person or people involved, and it's very relationship driven. And I'm more concerned with you getting what you want or need.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  15:14  
Okay, so in your book you use for the two axes, "results" and" relationships" as the names of those axes instead of assertive and cooperative. So what prompted you to make that change?

Marsha Clark  15:28  
I think relationships and results are more familiar regarding the language of business. So when I think about this being applied to organizations in which we work, or, you know, volunteer, or whatever that might be so, you know, oftentimes companies even have the two categories of results and relationships as part of their performance appraisal forms or processes. And I've also heard from many of my clients over the years that people think they have to choose between one or the other all the time to be successful. So results are more important than relationships, well, I can leave dead bodies lying around. But as long as I get it done, you know, I'm a success. And so I want both to be represented in this model. And then last, you know, assertive often has a negative valence attached. And it can be seen as hard, you know, like a hard skill or a harsh approach. And on the flip side, cooperativeness can be seen as soft, right? So, you know, I'm not standing up for what I believe in, or I'm not, you know, I don't have my own point of view, or, and I think most organizations would have a hard time arguing that really, both results and relationships are important to be seen as effective and successful.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  16:46  
Right. Totally agree, that makes sense. And, you know, I was wondering why the words are different from the original model.

Marsha Clark  16:51  
And I still use their original words. So I don't I mean, I understand the value of them. The adaptation that I've put on it is more of a layer or filter, really, that shows what I think is the focus or the attention.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  17:05  
Okay. Got it. So let's help everyone build out this model so they can see how all five response modes are charted on those two axes, and how they relate to each other.

Marsha Clark  17:17  
Right. So again, going to the bottom left corner where the two axes meet, you have low assertiveness and low cooperativeness. And you can write the word there "avoid".

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  17:31  

Marsha Clark  17:32  
So when both the relationship and the results are of low importance to me, really, I don't have a dog in that hunt or no skin in that game, then that's an opportunity to avoid. That's where avoid resides. (Okay.) And then as you move up on the vertical axis, the assertiveness or the results line, you're going to have the compete response mode. And what that means is you've got high results, focus and attention and lower relationship attention, (Right.) And then as you go to the horizontal line, and you go out to the far end of the assertiveness line, so it is high on relationships, low on results, you're going to write the word "accommodate", or accommodating. (Okay). Avoiding, competing, accommodating.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  18:27  
Makes a triangle. (It does.) Okay, got it. Got it. So accommodating is low assertiveness high cooperativeness. Yes. And, you know, I would think that that's kind of where a lot of the focus, especially for women and prioritization of relationships, comes in.

Marsha Clark  18:49  
Oh, we're going to talk about that. Okay. You're onto something. Yes you are.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  18:53  
So what's the response mode for high assertiveness and high cooperativeness? I guess that's, you know, it's the top far right corner, if we're going to make a square.

Marsha Clark  19:05  
That's right. And that's where the collaborating response mode resides. So we've now I've got four of the five. We've got avoid, compete, accommodate and now collaborate and that's when both the results and the relationships are being prioritized.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:23  
Okay, so there's a fifth one. So this last conflict response mode is called compromise, I got out of the book. So I'm betting our listeners can guess where that one falls.

Marsha Clark  19:35  
Well, it's smack dab in the middle. So you know, if you think about this, that it's midway in importance in both the assertiveness and cooperativeness and both the relationship and the results are important and I'm willing to do some give and take. So the compromise fits in there.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:51  
Okay, so we've drawn out this model. We've got five points plotted on our what was a triangle and is now a square. We've got a dot in the middle. Now what?

Marsha Clark  19:52  
Alright. So I want our listeners, or there's one important point I want to talk about. So I want our listeners to think about each of these five as tools in your toolkit. And you can also think about them just as strategies even, we're going to call them conflict response modes, we're gonna call them strategies, we're gonna call them approaches, those are all mean the same thing, representing these five things, for achieving desired outcomes, outcomes in results and outcomes in relationship. And I also want our listeners to hear there's no right answer. You know, it's some people say to me, Well, I never want to avoid. Another will say Well, I always want to avoid because, and we try to get the right answer on, you know, even how we score on the assessment tool. And, you know, what I want our listeners to hear is that the most important thing to take from this series that we're going to do on conflict is knowing which tool to use when, which takes us right back to our very first, when you think about some of our early podcasts where we said "Good leaders have to know they have a toolkit and are always trying to enrich their toolkit." So I'm giving you five tools to enrich your toolkit. Great leaders know what tool to use when. That's the real emphasis I want to put on this podcast as we start this series.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  21:27  
Well I just want to like double triple underline this point because I'm guessing that most of our listeners might have assumed like many people do and I did when I was first approached with this material, that there's always a best conflict response because it's hammered into their heads at work. And I love this idea that, depending on the situation, depending on the scenario, depending on how important it is to you personally, sometimes avoiding is just, if you don't really give a crap about what's going on, then you know what, just keep your mouth shut and just walk away smiling, and move on. But if it really matters to you and is important, then sometimes it may be worth it to step way into that conflict or assertiveness or results oriented, in a results oriented manner, or choose the middle ground. I mean, I love having all of these different options.

Marsha Clark  22:27  
That's right. And, you know, so many organizational cultures are skewed towards the collaborative approach to decision making or consensus is the one I always hear about, which means I can live with it, right. But and we think that's that we have to do use that approach for everything. But you know, and remembering that, you know, decision making is when most conflicts arise, but there is no one size fits all. So you're gonna learn about one of these today, the avoiding strategy or the avoiding approach, but we're going to give you four more, and we're going to talk about when to use which one.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:01  
Right, so the best tool for the situation, it might not always be collaboration, you know, the middle of the road may not always be the best choice.

Marsha Clark  23:09  
Well, that's right. And so as we explore each of these five response modes, we're going to look at the situations where you would use each one. We're also going to talk about what skills are required to be competent in using that particular tool or approach and what's likely to happen if you overuse or underuse any one of them, because that's an important piece as well. So that regardless of the situation, you know, I'm not being effective. And you know, I really need to be mindful and intentional about all of that. Have you used the phrase, when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail? (Yes.) Well, you've got hammers, you've got saws, you've got tape measures, you've got screwdrivers, you've got I mean, there's lots of tools, and this is no different than that.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:55  
Exactly. So avoiding, I feel like this is probably my typical response in some things that has to do with my parents. You know, it's just easier to just let them have their opinion or their way or, you know, whatever. And especially in those situations, where again, as I said earlier, it's not a high, it doesn't really matter, you know, in the long run. Five minutes, five years from now, it's really not going to matter. So...

Marsha Clark  24:25  
Yeah. Well, to me, though, that's a perfect use of avoid because it's very intentional. And it's not something that's gonna keep you up at night because you chose to avoid it. Right? We're doing it. That's right. Do it the way they wanted to do it. And you know, some people tell me they think it's never wise to avoid a conflict. You know, it'll fester. And I just want to say to our listeners, I just beg to differ on so many levels in that regard. It is an effective strategy when used in the right situation. And I think we've all heard the phrase choose your battles. I mean, yeah, that is another way of thinking about avoiding. And I also want to tell our listeners this, that avoiding can either be used as a short term or a long term strategy for managing conflict. So we'll talk about some different examples for each of those.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:15  
Okay, you've given each of these conflict response modes a tagline or kind of a bumper sticker, if you will, to describe what's going on in the mind of the person who prefers that particular style of dealing with a conflict. So what's the tagline for the avoider?

Marsha Clark  25:31  
Yeah, this is one and it always reminds me of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind,  "I'll think about it. I'll think about it tomorrow". And you know, that's the short term approach to avoiding, right, because I'm not gonna think about it today. But, you know, and maybe the issue's just too overwhelming to tackle right now. Or maybe you're not prepared because you haven't done your homework, or you didn't see it coming or you weren't, you know, ready. And maybe you're not clear about what your own position on a particular issue is. And, you know, whatever the case, you're pulling out, you know, of the conversation, pulling out of it or delaying it, to get prepared for and get clear about what you think is necessary to resolve the conflict.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  26:14  
Yeah, one of the things I really appreciate about the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument is that it shows you kind of in a rank order, what your preferred approach is to dealing with conflict. And I think the aha moment for everyone who takes that assessment is to recognize that we might prefer to avoid conflict and put off dealing with it maybe even indefinitely, but that that's not always effective. I may be using avoid for all conflict. And in the end, I'm not managing anything, and just kicking the can down the road for some later date when I'm going to actually have to still deal with it.

Marsha Clark  26:57  
Well, it's exactly what's happened, actually, with any of the risk response modes. And I agree with you, it's one reason I do love the assessment, it gives us those raw scores. And if I'm really high in avoid, and it's my go to approach regardless of the situation, I'm not being effective. And I may be giving a whole lot of my power away, because I'm not speaking up and speaking my truth or my perspective or my point of view.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  27:24  
Right. And you said earlier that some people think that you should never use avoid, but that there are some very relevant situations where it's the optimum response. So besides me and my parents, what are those?

Marsha Clark  27:41  
So to become proficient, really to be effective at knowing what tool to use when you're going to need to anticipate and get clear about the nature of what the interaction and what your objectives are. So you and I are going to have a conversation. What do I think the nature of that is going to be and what are we trying to achieve in this conversation? And so there are three specific examples that I share when I think using the avoid response makes the best sense, and is the most effective. And they are one) when I'm trying to reduce tensions, and we'll talk a little bit more about each of these, okay.  But one is reducing tensions. Two is buying time. So when I'm not ready, that's the temporary or short term avoid. And third is when I'm trying to stay out of the middle.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  28:33  
Wow, that sounds like Corporate America right there. I'm glad we're getting into that one. So with reducing tensions, the first one, that's where you're basically not actively engaging, you're stepping back to de-escalate the situation, right?

Marsha Clark  28:47  
That's right. And I use this example, in the book, where I asked if you've ever been in one of those conversations, you know, when the voices are getting louder in the fist or pounding on the table, and, you know, faces are getting red, and people are talking and spit's coming out .... You know, it's a very animated, visual. And if you haven't personally been in the middle of that kind of exchange, maybe you've observed others in the middle of one of those exchanges. Because you know, many of us have been in those heated, either meetings, even prep meetings or our family conversations, right? So when the tensions and the emotions are clearly rising, we can use the short term or temporary avoid approach to de-escalate the situation.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  29:33  
Yeah, and I can see how that would be effective.

Marsha Clark  29:35  
Well, it is a good example. And this idea of reducing tensions is related to the next possible use of the avoid strategy and that's when you need to buy time. So you see the voices rising and you know, you're not having a productive conversation, right, this is going to end badly as I say. And so buying time, the second one, situation, represents where you want to delay the conversation until you have time to do additional research, maybe have conversations with other people to get points of view or perspectives, or to think about the issue further. And at that point, you can determine which of the other response modes is the most appropriate to move forward. But I've used avoid in a temporary or short term way.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  30:22  
Right. So it's basically a conflict timeout, if you will.

Marsha Clark  30:23  
Yeah, that's a great analogy. And it's a chance to call a temporary stop in the action, right, give everyone a chance to step out and regroup, possibly trying to see the bigger picture and reconnecting to that bigger goal. And, you know, I think about it as the language that we often think about is let me sleep on it. Let me think about this. Let's put a pin in it. I mean, those are, you know, all the language of a temporary avoid.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  30:53  
Yeah, and I also see how, you know, if you're needing that, needing to buy time or having that recognition of buying time also allows your emotions to get, like you can cool off and let your emotions get out of the situation. So you can actually think better. (Yes) So I can see how that would definitely work. Now, this third scenario, where you say using the avoid approach is effective or appropriate is for staying out of the middle. What are we doing there?

Marsha Clark  31:29  
Yeah, and I want for all of our listeners out there who lead teams of people or you know, whether I don't care from team leader to CEO, it pretty much, the staying out of the middle means not letting yourself get sucked into other people's conflicts. And this can be especially challenging for people who are leaders who think it's their job to solve all that, right. The team dynamics, the personality conflicts, the, you know, two strong willed, or, you know, stubborn employees who want to get their way. And if you allow yourself to get sucked into the middle of every conflict around you and you find yourself solving the issue or all the issues that the employees are bringing you, guess what your reward is? They're going to keep bringing you more and more of their problems to solve. And if you want to treat your employees and the people that you hang out with as adults, you got to treat them like adults. And it's not the best of your time, your energy and your focus. And if you attempt to solve it and you're unsuccessful, they blame you. And it wasn't even your conflict to begin with. This is a lose-lose proposition when you find yourself getting sucked into the middlle of those.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:48  
And so for all of us, all of our listeners who are hearing what Marsha just described and they're having flashbacks to childhood, I'm an only child, but yet I can see how if you're a middle child, or even if you're the older and you're the one who grew up being the family referee, this can be something that you're bringing into your work life. (That's exactly right.) And you're trying to manage, it's like you're having flashbacks to childhood, and you're trying to manage other people's stuff because you can't stand conflict.

Marsha Clark  33:25  
You become a mediator, an arbitrator, a referee.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  33:28  
And I love that you say it's not going to work because if it doesn't, they'll blame me, they'll blame me no matter what. Okay. All right. So you offer a really effective example in the book of how to coach an employee who's struggling with a colleague, keeping that employee responsible for solving their own problems without you getting sucked into the middle. Tell us about that.

Marsha Clark  33:51  
Yeah, so I'm going to read this directly from the book, because I very carefully wrote this and I want to, I want to just share this with our leaders. So you want to allow others, the employees that are working for you to handle the conflicts that are theirs to resolve. Just start with that as a basic premise. So the example I provided in the book is where Employee A comes to you and says he or she can't work with Employee B. And you know, Employee B comes to you and is saying the same thing, right. So your recommended leadership approach or response to that, when that happens, is to listen to what the scenario is, probe for clarification, not trying to blame or embarrass anyone. And then you ask Employee A what a good relationship would look like going forward with that employee that they're not getting along with. And don't be surprised if they struggle answering or taking what might be a self serving or biased view because they just know it's not getting along. They haven't even taken the time to try and figure out what and why and how and when and where and all of that. So your job is not to solve it or get in the middle of it, it's to coach them to get clear, and regarding the mutuality and the realistic expectation. So that's all about clarity, okay. So then ask Employee A, once you get them to define what a good relationship would be, ask them what they've done to create that kind of relationship and what they're willing to do as they move forward. Because this is about them taking responsibility for creating the relationship they want. And then you state your expectations to that employee. So for example, I don't want workplace distractions or loss of productivity, as well as your expectation that you expect Employee A to have a conversation with Employee B to work on their relationship. And so you're setting and aligning expectations with this employee. And then, depending on maybe the maturity or the even the tenure of the employee, if they've been in the workplace a long time been around a while, you know, typically, this isn't the first time this happened. So you might practice the conversation with Employee A. So I will play Employee B you can't get along with so you practice talking to me, and let's work through this because we all know it's nerve racking when you have one of these conversations, yeah, first time, when I've actually don't just get to bring the problem to the boss, I've got to go solve the for the problem myself. So provide coaching for greater effectiveness and for building capacity for them to be able to have these kinds of conversations going forward in resolving these kinds of issues. And this is about creating capacity in that person to handle these difficult conversations. And then I also recommend that you let Employee A know that you're going to check back with them to see how the conversation went, stressing to them what Employee A has learned going through this whole process, defining what kind of relationship they want, recognizing what they can do to create that relationship, having the conversation with the employee, and so on. And and I also want to say, don't be surprised if I go back to you in a week Employee A and say, How did the conversation go? Don't be surprised if the conversation didn't occur. But you want to continue the follow up process because that's about accountability.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:31  
Yeah. So Marsha, one of the things that I like about this approach is that you, as the leader, are not completely disengaging and washing your hands of the employees' conflict. You're still offering coaching and guidance but you're not taking and absorbing their conflict as if it was your own.

Marsha Clark  37:51  
Well, you're right. And it is a very important distinction. Staying out of the middle is not about walking away, you know, completely and just leaving you there abandoned. It's about deliberately keeping the responsibility and accountability where it belongs. And I want to bring this up. When I think about this. Have you ever heard the stories and I remember it as good. You guys go in that room and don't come out until you're friends. That's what happens with siblings. (Yes.) Well, that's what my mother said to us. Yeah, well, if I knew how to, if I knew how to remedy this, I would have already done that. (Right.) So what we would do is we'd go in that room, and the bigger one would, the bigger one would pick on you and say all the things and I would just finally say this is going nowhere fast. We'd walk out of the room, go "we're friends". You know, we weren't friends, we weren't friends. (Right.) But we didn't know how to do that. Exactly. Right. I mean, you learn those things. And that's what we're trying to help people do here.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  38:44  
Yeah, yeah. Now, if I'm one of those people who think you should never avoid conflict, and maybe I scored myself a zero on my TKI assessment, I might not know how to use avoid as a deliberate strategy. So please share with our listeners what the skills are that we can use to, shall we say, artfully avoid conflict.

Marsha Clark  39:10  
I'm happy to and I'm going to give you four, so we'll highlight four. Okay, so the first skill is the ability to withdraw. The second is sidestepping. Third is a sense of timing. And four is the ability to leave things unresolved. So now let me go through each one of these. So for the first one, the ability to withdraw, you need to know that it's okay to start pulling away from a given situation. So I've got to tell myself, I've got to negate the neural pathway that has been laying in my brain that says you must not avoid conflict, right? I gotta tell myself sometimes it is okay. Sometimes it is okay to withdraw. This can be a short term or a long term solution again. It's an opportunity to pull away from any given situation. And you must be willing to not engage in a conflict conversation. And your inclination or default pattern to want to engage  has to be fought against. So withdrawing means merely that you are choosing not to be part of a conversation because you just want to avoid that particular conflict. You're not gonna get sucked into even the conversation. It says it's not of high importance to me.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  40:30  
Right. So it sounds a little bit like the second avoiding skill that you list which is sidestepping. So tell us what's the difference between ability to withdraw and then sidestepping.

Marsha Clark  40:42  
So they're very similar. And again, I'll quote from the book. So sidestepping is the skill that reflects your ability to tactfully avoid a conflict conversation, and language of sidestepping would include this is not a conversation that I choose to be engaged in. So another example of sidestepping is, I don't believe I have anything to offer in this conversation. So you see, in the first one, you're not even having a conversation with anybody (right) when you are speaking specifically and definitively, declaratively, that I am not going to engage in it. But you have some sort of exit phrase that you can use to remove yourself from the situation, or sidestep the situation.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  41:24  
Right. Got it. So it's probably helpful you know, for those of you who are listening, I'd write down both of those sentences, because I have these two sentences like in a place where I can grab them. Because if you're in the middle of an uncomfortable situation and you want to remove yourself, you may not have access to the right words, in that moment.

Marsha Clark  41:45  
You're so right, Wendi. It's really good advice because those phrases, they don't just  you know, come out of our mouths easily. We've got to give some thought to them ahead of time. And so that's when we can be ready. And speaking of time, that's actually our third skill to build for effective avoiding, it's that sense of timing. So when you find yourself in one of those conversations, where the tensions are rising, and you know, it's time to de-escalate or perhaps let an uncomfortable situation continue. You've got to know when to bring it down, or when to let it you know, go up. And when you find that another person is losing their temper, being disrespectful or making threats, you clearly want to de-escalate it, you know, quickly. That's an obvious one, you have a sense of timing, or to have a sense of timing is to know when to let them escalate and when to de-escalate. And so, in almost all situations, de-escalation is preferable. And this is when you want to remove yourself and get clear about how you want to re-engage in the conversation.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  42:50  
So I've noticed specifically that you said, quote, "in most situations" that de-escalation is preferred. When is it not?

Marsha Clark  42:59  
Yeah, there are rare occasions where conversations can escalate to the point of really, there's a breakdown, right? You know, it's just back and forth, and back and forth and neither one is going to, you know, accomplish anything. So one thing that I often share in the training is that sometimes a breakdown must take place before a breakthrough can manifest or happen. And so the phrase I use is, there sometimes has to be a breakdown before there can be a breakthrough. And so these instances are rare. And yet, they're pretty powerful. So I use this analogy in the book because some people say I don't get it, I don't. You know, so I use this analogy. When you break your arm, and if that arm is set properly, the bone in your arm where the break had occurred is actually stronger after you've broken it and it's mended correctly than it was before you broke the arm. So the bones knit back together and it is stronger in that place. And the way that this is measured is by reviewing the X ray that shows the density of that bone, that it is stronger after the break has occurred and it has mended well. And this is much like our relationships. So if our relationship can withstand a division or a breakdown, or you know, or being on two sides of a particular issue, and we can work our way through that situation, then, in fact, our relationship is stronger because we know we can withstand those differences.

Yeah. And you know, this is a great example of how effectively working through conflict actually builds and strengthens relationships.

Well, I agree with that. That's one of the reasons I love, again I'm going to go back to that Margaret Cavendish quote that I shared earlier. "One can be of a different opinion and still be my friend." You know, we can have a breakdown and still be friends. And in fact, our friendship will be stronger because we had a difference of opinion and we figured out a way to work our way through it. And that continued friendship is in fact that equivalent of a breakthrough in the phrase "There sometimes has to be a breakdown before breakthrough can manifest."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  45:24  
Yeah. So this final skill that's linked to effective avoiding is, quote, "the ability to leave things unresolved". Yeah, you know, I'm kind of half and half on that. Like, I have some things and some people in my life that I've just let it stay unresolved. And I, and I'm okay with that.

Marsha Clark  45:45  
Yeah, you know, you're not alone. So, this particular skill for many is difficult to achieve. So our brains are what are often referred to as closed loop systems, right. So once we get a thought into our brain, it just keeps circling and churning, around and around it goes. We wake up in the middle of the night and it pops into our heads again so until whatever it is gets resolved. And to get resolved is to close that loop. And so we know this to be true, because we do wake up in the middle of the night, or we think about something on the drive home or whatever it might be, because it's something that is not complete, or it is undone. So how many of our listeners, how many of you keep notepads on your bedside table? Right, and so that's another one of those, we write it down. So it's got a placeholder. So the loop can at least temporarily stop or write, you know, because I wrote it down, it can be closed for that particular part of it. How many of us set our alarms on our phones to ensure we don't forget something, or, you know, in the olden days, it was I would leave myself a voicemail on the drive home so that I would listen to voicemails when I got back to the office first thing in the morning and remember. So those are just some simple examples of how we find a temporary place to put some of those swirling thoughts so that we can get the rest that we need, you know, go to sleep and stay asleep. But use your own methods. Figure out what works for you that allows your brain to find that temporary place. And you can buy yourself time to resolve the issue at a more strategic or appropriate time, other than middle of the night, based on that overall strategy for managing what's a particularly complex situation.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  47:31  
Well, and you just said something that made me think about our yin yang energy episode. So if the yin is female, and yang is male, I think of this, like letting my yin energy take over temporarily and let things remain open but trusting that they'll work out in the end, and then my masculine you know, fix this now, now yang energy strategy can take a break.

Marsha Clark  47:57  
Well, that's a great tie back, Wendi. I've never thought of that. And it's a great visual for how to allow all parts of our natural desire for balance and harmony, it can work in our favor on this one. And, you know, it's also a great transition to a caution around the underuse of the avoid strategy for managing conflict.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  47:57  
So when you say underuse, are you talking to those of us who rarely or never avoid conflict? Those people who zero out on this line of the assessment?

Marsha Clark  48:27  
Yes. Yes. And, you know, one of the primary results of not using avoid diplomatically or deliberately is that you may find yourself creating hostility or hurt feelings in your relationship. And the point here is that if you think every conflict situation has to be addressed or resolved and done so right this minute, immediately, that would constitute an under use of avoiding. I never avoid, I'm always in the conversation. If you are always wanting to have a conflict conversation, you can be seen as a bully or a person who always has to win and even a poor team player. And that's certainly not part of the definition of leadership. And, and we want to be mindful about the appropriate use of avoiding, and it's that super uber yang energy that you were talking about. Yang doesn't like backing down, so avoiding conflict is you know, like kryptonite.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  49:24  
Right. Exactly. You provide some examples in the book of what happens when people overuse avoid as well, so when avoid is their preferred approach to all conflict.

Marsha Clark  49:36  
Yeah, every one of the these response modes that we're going to talk about has an underuse and an overuse list of things to be on the watch out for. And you know, the example I use in the book is like many of us have heard this, "Any strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness". This is not, you know, this falls in the same vein and it's the case if we overuse any one conflict risk response mode, no matter what the situation might call for. So in this case of using avoid as my preferred or my go to strategy, I look at six different typical consequences and I'd like to highlight a couple of them here. So the first one is lack of influence. And we as women, we're trying to get seats at the table and have an opportunity to influence directions and strategies and outcomes and so on. And yet, if I have a tendency or a default to avoid when it comes to speaking up and speaking my opinion or sharing my point of view, I'm going to have very limited impact on or influence on any of the outcomes because my input is lost. It's it's not even presented, so it's invisible.

And then another one of the overuse of avoiding is that issues can fester, right. So whatever it is, that was creating the conflict to begin with, gets bigger and bigger, and it creates this cautious climate. We've heard the walking around on eggshells, there's an elephant in the room and we all know it but nobody wants to speak about it, you know, kind of thing. So I often think about, you know, the exchanged glances, you know, that you see people have in meetings and, you know, as I said, that elephant in the room. And we all know that there are uncomfortable or unpleasant issues that are circling or circulating, but no one wants to be that person to bring it up. And that's the cautious climate. We keep hoping that someone's going to bring it up, but not me. And better yet, that it's just going to, you know, go away. And in my experience, you know, for over 50 years in a workplace, it doesn't, or it rarely does, and it usually surfaces at the most inopportune times. So it's the unreasonable response to something that seems so minor because it's built up to the point of the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. And so in the meantime, the continued avoidance of this undiscussable whatever it is, creates this cautious climate, and it's just not conducive to doing our best or most productive work.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  52:10  
So I think the thing that I really want to highlight from these two responses or two consequences, lack of influence, and issues fester and it creates this cautious climate, is that we, especially as women, I think that when we go to use avoid, we think that it's just going to go away and it's going to cause the least amount of ramifications or consequences to ourselves personally. And I really want to highlight that that's affecting you as a perceived leader in an organization. If you can't manage a conflict in a proper way and all you do is just try to avoid, it's like trying to avoid, I don't know, the sun, I mean or something, or air. I mean, it's going to happen. If you're going to be a leader, you're going to have to learn how to deal with it. And I think it can have a huge impact on whether or not you get promoted, whether or not you get seen to be the leader of a special project, or any project. This lack of influence and issues festering can actually cause you to even be demoted.

Marsha Clark  53:30  
Well, it can, or why are you in this meeting? You never have anything to offer. (Right) All of that lends itself to that. I agree.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  53:38  
Yeah. So two of the other consequences that you include in the book deal with work overload and lack of prioritization. And both of those can be a result of being afraid to say no. You know, I don't want drama, and I want to avoid conflict so I don't push back on assignments or I take too much on and then I end up with way too much on my plate.

Marsha Clark  54:01  
Yeah. And that's exactly what can happen if I'm a chronic conflict avoider. You know, we dedicated two entire episodes to setting and maintaining boundaries. And that's where we talk about establishing priorities. So our listeners might want to go back and listen to those through the lens of avoiding conflict for some of the tools and tips that we gave them in those in those podcasts.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  54:23  
Exactly. So I'm going to tell everyone, your first episode that you're looking for was called "Big Rocks" and that one was on priorities, and then the boundaries episode was called "NO is a Complete Sentence".  And they ran back to back in July.

Marsha Clark  54:39  
Yeah, and we've gotten a lot of great feedback on those.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  54:42  
Yeah, yes we have. So you also list one other consequence for the overuse of avoiding conflict, and I really would like for us to unpack that one just a little bit more here for our listeners, and it's on how leaders may not delegate work to their team or their family, you know, whatever kind of team you're in, because they're afraid they'll get push back.

Marsha Clark  55:07  
Yeah, this one shows up, especially when the leader sees or believes that their team members already have a significant amount of work to do. And they avoid delegating to the team, or any individual on the team in order to avoid the conflict or have a difficult conversation. And here's what I learned as a leader of the many teams that I've led over the years, I worked hard to delegate tasks that would in fact, develop my direct reports and help them achieve their career objectives. So that's the basis of delegation. It's not just getting all the things off my to do list and putting it on yours so that I can go home and, Why do I get to watch Monday Night Football, but you've got to work through Monday night, right? Okay. But it really is about developing capacity in them and giving them opportunity to to learn and grow. And avoiding conflicts really results in not only more work on your plate, but less learning for those people. So I also advised my direct reports that I was going to continue delegating such tasks to them until they told me they couldn't take on any more or meet the commitments that they'd already made if they took this one on as well. In other words, I would keep giving them work until they said no more. Because some people are willing to work. Some people work is heaven. I mean, I'm a workaholic, I love doing all that kind of stuff. And so, you know, don't say no for me and prevent me from learning or doing something new that, you know, helps me get further ahead in my career ambitions. Let me make that decision myself.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  56:44  
Yeah, I absolutely love that approach. It's something that I've used in my businesses as well, and told people at the outset. I think that's a key also is having that communication and saying, "I'm going to keep giving you assignments that I think are going to groom you and grow you. You tell me when this becomes too much." And I love that approach. And having met so many of the people who did work for you, I can see how your deliberate use of delegation as a development tool paid off, you know, not just for you, but for them and their careers as well.

Marsha Clark  57:19  
Well, absolutely. I've had many a proud moment in that regard. And the thing is, and I shared this in the book, when I delegated tasks that I simply didn't want to do, my employees could see right through that, and yours can too, to our listeners. And yes, this could have potentially resulted in, you know, some sort of conflict. And I'm not, again, recommending that you delegate the unpleasant tasks, or just the ones you don't want to do. Just be very thoughtful and intentional. And, you know, there's sort of a cousin to this. You may delegate something to one of your direct reports, and then they bring you back something that's less than or incomplete, or whatever that might be. And women often find it easier to accept that incomplete or lesser quality work, and finish it for that employee rather than to hold the other person accountable for a more acceptable level of performance because they want to avoid a conflict. (That's right.)  And so women tend to be more willing to inconvenience themselves by not delegating and by taking on more work themselves rather than inconveniencing another person. And I would just say to our listeners, I have to watch out for it in myself. And if you see this description, you know, fitting your, some of your own default patterns, I would say there's a different, there's another way, there's a better way.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  58:49  
Absolutely. Wow, Marsha such great content today on this first episode focusing on managing conflict. And I know we had to spend a little bit of time setting up the model itself, which we won't have to do for the next episode. So if you could pick a couple of highlights from today, what would they be?

Marsha Clark  59:07  
Yeah, I think starting with the name of the episode and the reminder that pretending that conflict doesn't exist or being into denial about it is not effective, powerful leadership to be in conflict, that's just wrongheaded. So you know, and it's as leaders that we need to create a safe space where productive and lively debate and critical thinking are encouraged and clarifying and probing and broadening of perspective, all of that while recognizing that this lively debate might create some conflict. So that's one thing. Then I also think it's important to recognize that most conflicts arise from decision making moments. And it's helpful to get really clear about what it is we're disagreeing about, and finding ways to look for common cause or larger goals that can keep us connected. And really in partnership, for solving whatever it is. And watch out for when that conflict starts to turn personal. So where we shift it, the conflict from being about the issue to being about the person and how the other is behaving. That's just a recipe for disaster. (Yes.) And finally, in each of the conflict approaches, we want the listeners to recognize that there are unique situations where each response mode makes the most sense, using the right tool when knowing what tool to use when, and that there are specific skills that will help enhance our effectiveness at using any one of the five approaches, and to be on the lookout for both the overuse or the underuse of the approach. And they're going to hear those on each of the episodes that we do for the five strategies.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:00:52  
Yes. I'm so looking forward to our next five recordings, I mean. So Marsha, thank you so much for this deep dive today. Our next episode is going to be called "My Way or the Highway" and in that one, we're going to focus on the compete conflict response mode. And that's going to be a fun one for all the, all of our competitive listeners out there.

Marsha Clark  1:01:15  
Well, it's an interesting one, I will say that. You know, oftentimes in class (the title itself, just to give a little bit of a tease), I say, I ask the class, how many of you have worked for or with someone who it felt like their life mission was "my way or the highway" and, you know, lots of hands go up. And then I say, and "How many people might have said that about you?" Now, kind of flip the switch, or flip the script. And so, you know, a few hands stay raised but their heads go down, and yeah, they don't make eye contact. But it's, I want to say this, it's a legitimate response mode. And we want to talk about when it's right to use that. Again, it can't be all the time any more than any of these can. But I think we'll have some fun with that one.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:02:04  
We are going to have some fun with that one. And I just love that you're continuing to reinforce that all five of these response modes are tools to be used at particular times. And that one isn't better than any of the others. So yeah, well, listeners, you got the goods today. Thank you for joining us on our journey of authentic, powerful leadership. Please download, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends, your other business colleagues, we're getting some amazing insights out of Marsha on these podcasts. Please visit her website at for links to all the tools and other resources we talked about today. Subscribe to her email list so you can stay up to date on everything that's going on in Marsha's world. And if you haven't gotten her book, I've been saying this, this is episode 52, Marsha. This is one year of recording. I've been saying it for a year, get Marsha's book, "Embracing Your Power". And give it to a friend, give it to, you know, for those of you who are listening who are mentoring any women in your life, or, you know, if you have a mentor, buy two books, one for you, one for your mentor or mentee and start going through it together. There's a lot of great information in here that you can discuss.

Marsha Clark  1:03:22  
Well, I appreciate that, Wendi, because we're getting lots of good feedback on the usefulness of the book. I was talking with several women, and one of my favorite stories about this was a woman who was actually using it with a couple of women that she was mentoring and they read a couple of the chapters and she goes, how can Marsha know my story? As they're reading, how does she know she's talking to me? You know, in this and so I think there are so many universal truths that we as women have experienced, regardless of generation or company or industry or role or geography or anything else. And so you know, this is all about teaching and educating. We hope they're entertaining, but our goal really is to help people learn.

And listeners, thank you for being with us today and for staying engaged in these and sharing them with your colleagues and community in whatever way makes sense for you. We appreciate that and we do hope that you'll continue to stay with us because we've got some good additional information on this really complex and hard to handle oftentimes topic of conflict. So and as always, we're here for you and we hope you'll join us again and, here's to women supporting women!

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