Do You Handle Conflict Like a Rhinoceros or an Ostrich?

Become a better sales coach and sales manager today.

Here’s how to become a powerful, executive level communicator and eliminate confrontation—permanently.

“I want to work on improving my communication, especially with my peers, boss, sales team, and my customers. I find it challenging to talk with some people or have those difficult conversations, based on their personality or my experience with them.” An insightful statement to make if you’re one who embraces your continued growth, personal evolution, and journey of lifelong learning and self-development.

But what does this statement even mean?

During a recent coaching session, with Erik, a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, I posed this very question. His response, which I hear quite often was, “I need to be better at handling disagreement and conflict. I have a tendency to either erupt like a volcano or avoid these types of conversations. I hate confrontation or having difficult conversations with people.” Sound familiar?

I asked Erik exactly how he defines “confrontation.” He said, “Combative; you know, an argument.”

“Say more,” I requested. “Well, I know it’s confrontational when it erupts into an argument or I get pushback from the other person around my comments, opinions or ideas. I also get emotionally charged when someone negatively reacts to what I say or approaches me with an aggressive posture—and vice versa. I notice a variation in my tone, I raise my voice, and my body language and posture also changes. Confrontation to me is also disagreement. Then, you often wind up throwing jabs at each other like, ‘Look what happened the last time you tried that’ or, ‘You’re wrong’ or, ‘Do you really think that’s going to work?’ or, ‘You believe that’s the reason why you didn’t hit your sales targets this quarter?’ These are several indications of a brewing, imminent conflict about to bubble to the top that often leads to an explosive ending.”

There’s No Such Thing as a Difficult Conversation

I then introduced him to an alternative way of thinking. “What if there was no such thing as a difficult conversation?”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Of course there are. I can name a bunch of conversations that are tough to have.” Erik then shared his list of challenging discussions. Here are a few that he mentioned:

  • Dealing with an underperformer or behavioral issues.
  • Performance reviews or not hitting sales objectives.
  • Compensation changes.
  • Internal policy changes.
  • Disagreement or having different points of view around sales process, strategies, how to handle certain situations, etc.
  • Managing someone who is having a strong emotional reaction to something that happened or has a tendency to become overly sensitive.
  • Strained interpersonal relationships between team members, especially if someone “wronged” the other person.
  • Trying to get the sales veteran on the team to try something new.
  • When the other person thinks they’re right, and they are flat out wrong!
  • Coaching people who I perceive are more skilled at their job than me.
  • Keeping promises made by others that my direct reports expect me to honor.
  • A salesperson who is struggling to close out a difficult deal by quarter end.

“These are clearly difficult and often awkward conversations to have,” Erik stated with great certainty.

Managers and salespeople continually experience the fight or flight syndrome when faced with conflict or challenging situations like the ones mentioned here. Rather than approach these conversations like a charging rhinoceros or conversely, stick your head in the sand and avoid them, hoping these problems magically disappear, what if the real conflict was all conjured up in your mind?

Stop Creating Things That Aren’t There

Think of a turbulent or challenging conversation you’ve had. Now, rewind the tape of that conversation in your mind. What made that conversation so difficult? The root cause will always go back to:

  • Your approach.
  • The current assumptions you perceive to be the truth.
  • Your mindset going into the conversation.
  • Your expectation of the outcome.
  • Your experiences surrounding the situation, including your past experiences in dealing with similar situations or people, your relationship with that particular person, or the role they are in.

We think to ourselves, “Well, I remember the last time I had to have a tough and candid talk with someone about their performance. Let’s just say it didn’t go very well.” Then, the next time we’re faced with a similar scenario, we create the hypothetical outcome in our mind, and react based on our past experience and the assumption of the truth. The byproduct of this thinking is, you continue to recreate the same experiences you’ve had in the past. The self-fulfilling prophecy gets validated and as such, these self-proclaimed, “difficult conversations” will continue to appear in your life!

The perception you hold regarding how people are going to react, and how strong of a position you take around your beliefs actually influences how you choose to engage with others. In essence, you are choosing to communicate and react based on things that may not even be true! This only continues to exasperate unproductive interactions and enforces your expectation of the outcome, rather than create a new possibility.

When you shift the way you communicate, you change the way people listen, engage with you, and how they feel. In essence, you create the environment for people to open up and communicate honestly in a productive, collaborative way.

Respect How the The Rhino and Ostrich Operate

To add to this conundrum of communication, what happens if you have two people in a conversation, where one takes on the characteristics of the Rhino and the other takes on the characteristics of the Ostrich? And conversely, what if those two people share the same characteristics? That is, you have two people in a conversation who both communicate like the Rhino or the Ostrich? This certainly makes for an interesting case study and observation! Regardless, in either of these scenarios, effective, transparent and collaborative communication comes to a screeching halt!

Confrontation = Coaching Opportunity

Rather than look at these ‘tough talks’ as confrontational, what if you changed your perception and viewed these as coaching opportunities and another chance for you to elevate your status as an elite leader and powerful communicator?

Start defusing what could erupt into an explosive situation by putting it back on the other person and acknowledging their feeling and reaction. Change your paradigm from, “It’s going to be another argument” to, “It’s just a new discussion where together, we can co-create a new outcome.”

Keep in mind, conversations only erupt into arguments when neither side respects nor can accept the other person’s opinion, or sees that there is an opportunity to create a better outcome by simply changing the conversation.

Here’s an example of how you can change your approach when communicating and ultimately, the outcome of what could historically turn into a volatile situation.

“What I want for you is to be able to leave our conversation feeling that you have been truly listened to, we have addressed what is frustrating you the most, and you have gotten what you need from me. I want to support you the best way I can. However, I’m sensing you’re clearly invested in this and are having a reaction to what happened. I want to do my best to help you defuse and resolve this situation but we both need to approach this conversation in a way that will enable us to accomplish what you want, without allowing our emotions to get in the way. So, is now the most appropriate time to discuss this or do you want to take some time to process how you can best approach this situation so that we can talk through this together in a calm and productive way in order to create the best solution for you?”

An old, yet relevant communication truth. People may not remember what you said but they certainly remember how you made them feel.

Shift your thinking and definition around what confrontation or conflict truly is. Since you have full control around how you respond to situations like these, how you approach them and what you say, then instead of making it about you or viewing people’s reactions as a personal attack, take the time to be authentically curious so that you can best assess and seek to understand what triggered this reaction in the first place; from the other person’s side, as well as your own. Here’s your opportunity to create a valuable coaching moment and provide unconditional support, rather than continuing to react from the past that produces the same outcomes over and over again.

Remember, who determines whether people open up or shut down in every conversation? You do.

Photo Credit: Aaron Amat (via Shutterstock)