Unpacking Tool #3: Can You Help Me Understand?

Knowing the Cost

If you have made it this far in whatever setting where you are managing conflict, and you are not hyperventilating, and your audience—one or many—are still with you, you are doing great! Most people avoid conflict like the plague. And it is costly! Lisa Earle McLeod, a sales leadership consultant and best-selling author in an article for the Huffington Post says,

A reluctance to deal with conflict is hugely detrimental to business. Good ideas remain unspoken, people create silos, and leaders don’t get the information they need because everyone is afraid to bring up potentially contentious issues.“  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-earle-mcleod/why-avoiding-conflict-kee_b_891460.html

And Vitalsmarts Research confirms the real and staggering cost of avoiding conflict in the workplace..

“According to our study of more than 650 people, employees waste an average of $1,500 and an eight-hour workday for every crucial conversation they avoid. According to the research, 95 percent of a company’s workforce struggles to speak up to their colleagues about their concerns. As a result, they engage in resource-sapping avoidance tactics including ruminating excessively about crucial issues, complaining, getting angry, doing unnecessary work, and avoiding the other person altogether.”  file:///C:/Users/SCP/Downloads/Cost-of-Conflict-Avoidance-Research-Summary.pdfs.

Ninety five percent of the workforce struggles to speak up creating “resource-sapping tactics. ” You do not have to be part of that resource-sapping, conflict avoiding, costly crowd. The four tools of conflict management we are unpacking have the potential to significantly reduce the cost of conflict in both personal and professional relationships. Using these tools can improve personal health and professional productivity.

Carefully Setting the Stage

Let’s review to set the stage for tool number three. The first two tools are statements. The first tool in managing conflict is the clear statement of your goal or purpose. Stating the goal clearly at the beginning of any conversation, personal or professional, identifies what will be accomplished and what will not be accomplished in the conversation at hand. It greatly reduces the potential damage resulting from unmet expectations. This helps set the boundaries for the particular conversation, and increases the possibility of success in reaching the goal. The second tool is the statement that we all resist. It is admitting that we could be wrong. But this tool when used authentically, is the next step in setting the stage for managing conflict. Admitting you could be wrong, literally, demonstrates that you are willing to listen and learn, and not just lecture someone who holds a different view than you do. When this statement is genuine it decreases the defensiveness of the person or group being addressed and makes it more likely they will hear you more accurately and respond more honestly. Vulnerability is endearing and disarming and is critical to managing conflict. These two statements or tools set the stage for what will be the most challenging step in this process for you, the person who has initiated the conversation and has the larger responsibility for its outcome. Up until now you have been in control and held most of the power in the conversation. Get ready for a power shift.

Giving Power and Control to Others

The third tool gives the other person or persons control and power in the conversation. It requires you to now listen to another perspective or view of the circumstances. And given that you have stated your goal clearly and admitted your own fallibility, it can be hard to hear what the other person or persons have to say. The third tool is a question. The question is, “Can you help me understand your perspective—how you see this situation?” Phrasing the question this way reminds them that you know you could be wrong and can learn something from them. The phrase, “can you help me” goes beyond, “tell me.” It puts them in the driver’s seat and affirms their ability to help you or to teach you. This tool will require that you give them your full attention and listen carefully. It is helpful in this part of conflict management to intermittently, without interrupting, do active listening by reflecting back what you are hearing or learning. When it is clear there is a slight pause in their communication, you simply say, “Do I understand that you …” or “So what you are saying is…” and then you repeat exactly what you heard them say. You can also demonstrate active listening in this process by interjecting one or two word responses, like “interesting” or “really?” or “I see.” In combination with focused eye contact, these responses communicate you were sincere about wanting to understand their perspective. A good read on active listening from the Center for Creative Leadership is Michael H. Hoppe’s Active Listening:Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead. Successful leadereship in a personal or professional relationship can be significantly enhanced through active listening.

Managing the Time

Obviously, the conversation cannot go on indefinitely. Everyone has time limitations, and particularly when conflict is involved it is best for all parties involved for there to be a clear delineation of the amount orf time that will be spent. In fact, this can be part of the first tool. When the goal is clearly stated, the anticipated time for the conversation can also be stated. This can further minimize unmet expectations and avoiding the exhaustion that can come from difficult conversations that go on too long. Consequently, an important part of using this third tool is giving a time frame to how long they have to help you understand and, giving them gentle notice when that time is coming to a close. There is still one more tool to use in this conflict management process and you want to be sure to leave time for it. When you know that it is about time to begin to use the final tool, you remind them of the goal that was stated at the beginning, and that you have heard their perspective. Further signaling the conversation or presentation is winding down, you can ask them if there is anything else that they would like you to understand before you conclude. Finally, before you move on to the fourth tool, If indeed you have a better understanding from listening to their perspective, it is very constructive to briefly state what you have learned and thank them. Explaining the fourth and final tool can relieve any anxiety or disappointment remaining as it signals the work of managing the conflict will continue. It is not done.

The fourth tool is also a question—Where do we go from here? This tool allows everyone in the conversation to share the power and control of the situation and plan for more potential resolution to the conflict in the future. Next week we will unpack this fourth and final tool in this conflict management process.

Written by Candie


  1. Jimmy McGuire April 8, 2017 at 3:49 pm Reply

    This question is vital, and will require you to let the other party talk without interruption. We all hate it when someone asks us for our perspective, then starts arguing with it to tell us why our perspective HAS to be wrong. “Ok, then don’t ask me and just confirm why I think you’re an idiot.”

    • Candie
      Candie April 9, 2017 at 3:02 am Reply

      Jimmy, exactly! This is why none of these steps can be “conjured” or “faked.” You cannot fake vulnerability and you cannot fake listening. And defensive responses are a dead give away that you really do not want to listen and do not think you can learn anything. In my experience it takes a lot of practice–sometimes a bloody tongue–to stay quiet and listen!

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