Sadly in business as in life we sometimes run into conflict.  People don't always agree. And whilst some types of conflict can be healthy and can be managed, in many cases the conflict can detract from performance and it is critical for the leader to manage it effectively.

I learnt a lot about managing conflict from Neil Denny, a divorce lawyer who speaks on the subject. Sadly I assume it's a big part of his day job. Whatever he has written a great book Conversational Riffs: Creating Meaning Out of Conflict. I’ll précis the highlights here whilst recommending all to get the full picture by reading Neil’s book.

Choose your reaction

Neil uses quite a clever metaphor – that of playing guitar chords. If like me, you are not a musician, you may not realise that when we hear a repeated set of chords played, it is known as a riff. ie A riff is the same chords played again and again.

Neil uses this metaphor to suggest that often, when we are faced with conflict, we use the same few riffs again and again. A bit like Status Quo he suggests! 

Another clever analogy actually as he suggests that the norm or status quo is to react in one of three or four basic and simple ways.

He proposes the sensible idea that if we know more chords, we can play a greater variety of tunes. And in conflict resolution, the equivalent is having a greater range of reactions when we are faced with a conflict situation.

He suggests that when faced with conflict we normally react to Attack with Defence or Counter-Attack or sometimes do nothing. And he goes on to suggest we should learn and try to use some new techniques for conflict resolution including:


Invite the other party to discuss the issue at some later time, when both parties have had time to calm down and think through the issue more rationally


Encourage the other party to talk more about the problem and how they see the world in order that the full picture can be better understood by both parties. Far better than the assumptions we often make about the other party!


Agree and accept the other party’s view of the situation, and put it in the context of the many other situations where you have common ground so that you can jointly fins a way forward that sustains the whole relationship.

Agreeing differences

In this approach the idea is that both parties are able to explain their perceptions of the situation such that the gap can be properly understood and then there can be a joint effort to build a bridge, a solution, that enables both to move on.

And finally he encourages us not to use the final two riffs of 




Can you break the negative cycle?

This approach uses a variation on the simple and legendary 2×2 matrix format, and suggests we consider both our own and the counter party’s actions alongside our own and the counterparty’s perceptions.

Neil suggests that when faced with a conflict we start by reflecting carefully about what is going on in the red and green boxes, how that impacts the purple and blue boxes.

And most importantly how the dynamic might be changed by thinking carefully when we are in the green box.

Maybe by considering very carefully our reaction in the green box we can change how the reaction sequence and the outcome!

A negative feedback cycle

Sometimes it works out a bit like this. 

Noptice how this takes the focus away from winning the business and is likely to end in parting company - costly to the company as well as the individual.

Assumptions are being made on both sides about what is going on in the mind of the other party.

The likelihood is that both parties will continue looping around exchanging antagonistic assumptions.

That could be an expensive mistake, depending of course on whether the assumptions made early on were valid.

A more positive feedback cycle

It is though just possible that if we’d chosen a different option and checked the facts rather than making assumptions the world might actually be quite different. The cycle might have become: 

At which point some constructive coaching from the experienced sales manager might just help them win the deal and both get closer to their targets and the business grows!

Clearly I’ve used a simplistic example (My own not Neil’s, so don’t blame him for it) to illustrate the point. 

By choosing a course of action that elicits more information we may learn more and be able to find a better way forward.