Unpacking Tool #1: Clearly State Your Goal

I know. It sounds way too simple. Four Basic Tools for Managing Conflict. Yah, right. If only it were that easy. Use these four tools and conflict will be no more. No. We all know that some conflict is a normal part of life. If you read the Four Basic Tools carefully, you see two clarifications.

First, these tools are not adequate for complex and long standing conflict. That kind of conflict requires many more tools and usually professional mediation or counseling, as well. And second, using these tools does not guarantee that conflict will be no more because even if you use these tools you do not control the other person’s response or continuing behavior. However, if you do consistently use these four basic tools it will significantly decrease your own stress in relationships or work environments where there is conflict.  And it will significantly increase your skill as a communicator personally and professionally, resulting in more productivity and more enjoyment of life and work. So, let’s unpack the four tools one at a time.  This week we will unpack the first tool—clearly stating your goal(s) for a conversation or meeting.

The power of this tool cannot be over stated. Expectations are one of the primary factors in determining what people take away from a conversation or meeting. Without clarification, there are as many expectations as there are people involved and usually each party has multiple expectations. That is a lot of expectation swirling around the room before the communication even begins! Research shows that expectations, met or unmet, are critical to the outcome. Check out this cool article by David Rock, from “Your Brain At Work,” on the influence of expectations, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/200911/not-so-great-expectations.

Clearly stating what your goal is for the conversation or meeting immediately puts your own expectations in order, and, at least gives the other person or persons involved the opportunity to do the same or adjust theirs. One of the other tools we will unpack gives the other person or persons the chance to at least state that they were hoping for something else or more, but save that for later. Sticking with my own advice, the purpose or goal of this post is to talk about clearly stating your goal, your intention. Back to it.

The wisdom of this is more easily seen from using a geographical and travel analogy so many industries and professions lean on. The adage goes like this: If you know where you are going, you can find a way to get there. But if you just set out without an end location in mind, you could wander indefinitely! Communication is no different. By stating your purpose, goal, or desired outcome clearly and at the beginning you have declared where you are headed and where you will end up when the conversation or meeting is done. This clarity sets much needed boundaries. It makes public for all involved what you will talk about and what you will not talk about. And by setting these boundaries it dramatically reduces the number of expectations swirling around. Consequently, it eliminates most dissatisfaction due to unmet expectations. Tada! Clear goal. Great potential for success.

A professional group process example

A board where I recently served as moderator demonstrated this wisdom dramatically. The board was embroiled in a situation where multiple and very disparate expectations were coming at them from every direction. The confusion and the sense of wondering where to start was palpable. They were being pressured to make a major decision regarding the organization’s future. As a new moderator it immediately became clear to me that they did not have the tools or process experience to make this grand decision, and especially under the significant pressure they were experiencing from stakeholders. So, as the primary goal of our initial meeting, I recommended we spend the time necessary to develop the skill needed to eventually make this organizational decision. You could feel the tension in the room subside. They decided as a board that this would be their primary expectation for the next few meetings—to build the skill necessary to make the decision facing them. In addition, now they were able to communicate clearly to all involved what they could expect from this board for the next few meetings. Of course, we lost some stakeholders who wanted an immediate decision. They could not and would not wait for a more reasoned and researched decision. But we also eventually gained incredible confidence and trust in each other as a board, and from others in the organization.  A few months later the board was able to make the necessary decision and, through the process, they had gained significantly in their skill as board members and as communicators with the larger organization. The stakeholders we lost were replaced by stakeholders who valued knowing their board was a learning and discerning body over any particular decision they faced.  A clearly stated goal led to a clear expectation which led to great satisfaction of outcome.  And, in this case, it greatly improved enjoyment of the work this board accomplished together.

A professional one-on-one example

Talk about conflict. In a particular meeting an individual in my organization had circulated a survey related to conflict within the organization. She did not have accurate information or appropriate skill for constructing such a survey, and she did not have the authority in this particular meeting to conduct such a survey. I found out through the grapevine, of course, that she had done this. I made an appointment with her. Now, let me just say, there were a LOT of things I could have and would have liked to talk to her about! I could not and I did not. I determined that the primary goal of the meeting with her was to communicate the appropriate boundaries for this kind of communication in our organization. I am sure, given the context at the time, she too, had a lot of things she would have liked to talk about. Expectations. It’s all about expectations and identifying the ones that are going to be met and clearly communicating that many others will not be met.

At the beginning of the meeting with her I stated clearly that my goal for the limited time we had was to explain the appropriate boundaries for communication within our organization. I also told her that  this meeting would not be about any and all communication. The conversation would be about the specific type of meeting she had used and the type of survey she had circulated. I had a copy of it in my hand when we met. This incident actually was a very small piece of a much more serious conflict taking place in the organization.  But for this one relationship, this one instance, we accomplished the goal. Though she was not happy, she left knowing that the particular meeting she used was not the appropriate place, and she knew that the type of survey she circulated was equally inappropriate. Nothing else was solved or  accomplished. But that’s okay! The goal declared was the outcome obtained.

Whether the communication is taking place in a professional setting or a personal relationship, expectations are a huge influence on outcome. Clearly stating the goal at the beginning lowers expectations, focuses expectations, and greatly increases the possibility of a productive outcome.

This tool does not stand alone, of course. Next week we will unpack the second basic tool for managing conflict. It’s a hard one! It requires vulnerability and humility. The first tool puts you in the driver’s seat. The second tool offers some influence and power to the others in the conversation or meeting. In combination with a clearly stated goal, it will set you up for maximizing productivity and satisfaction in communication outcomes big and small for all involved.

When you are in a meeting or involved in an important conversation how do you feel when there is no focus? For you, what signals that this will be a focused conversation or meeting?

Written by Candie


  1. Bobby March 24, 2017 at 2:43 pm Reply

    Conflict management is a lost skill for so many in this day and age. We live in a time where your opinion is the only one that counts and if others create dissonance for you – call them a shamer and unfriend them! Unfortunately I see this all the time and it is weakening friendships and working relationships in our world. The strongest relationships I have are forged in fires of hard work and/or hard conversations. Thank you Candie for sharing this process.

    • Candie
      Candie March 24, 2017 at 8:23 pm Reply

      Bobby! You are right. We are an “unfriending” conflict averse culture. it is unfortunate as there is so much to be learned by facing conflict head-on and learning to manage it even when we can’t completely resolve it. Thank you for checking in!

  2. Dr. James N. McGuire March 24, 2017 at 4:54 pm Reply

    Excellent. One of my most helpful Doctoral classes at McCormick was Conflict Resolution. You’ve nailed what must happen before any resolution can take place: clarify expectations.

    • Candie
      Candie March 24, 2017 at 8:21 pm Reply

      Thanks for checking in, Jimmy. My “doctorate” in conflict has come from the “School of Hard Knocks.” I know you have had some of that learning, too! In combination with solid academic research, there is nothing like practice to build these skills. If not resolution, at least management is possible when conflict is approached with these tools.

  3. Jeremiah March 24, 2017 at 6:52 pm Reply

    Hey Candie,
    Great insight into the first steps to conflict management. When I embark on anything the “why” or “vision” for the task at hand is a must for my sanity. To answer your question above, I feel like I am wasting my time in important conversations if there is no focus. I respect others’ time and expect the same in return. Whenever the leader of a meeting or the person approaching me covers their goals prior to discussion, I tend to be able to focus better. More often in my experience, meetings end better with a sense of having met a goal for that time.

    • Candie
      Candie March 24, 2017 at 8:05 pm Reply

      Thanks Jeremiah! I HATE meetings unless there is a clear plan. I think most people do because often meeting is synonymous with meandering conversation! No time for meandering unless it is with a good friend and a nice glass of wine…or two.

  4. Shannon Stier March 31, 2017 at 4:51 pm Reply

    I like this. Thanks for the info. As a mother of twin teenagers, I can always use help with resolving conflict : )

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