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Coaches and Conflict

Coaches and Conflict
an Interview with Tim Ursiny Most people fear conflict and avoid it like the plague. But conflict is a good thing, says Tim Ursiny, coach and author of Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight.

Listen in as we talk about:

    •  the top reasons people avoid conflict
    •  the need to examine our own approach to conflict
    •  the powerful 100 + 1% principle, and
    • conflict with clients.


What prompted you to write a book on conflict?

The biggest reason is that I’m a recovering conflict coward. I was always terrified of conflict growing up – scared to death of it. I went through years of avoiding it, of hiding, of lowering my self-esteem, of getting hurt – all because of my great fear of conflict.

My life started shifting when I saw that there were really good things that could come from handling conflict well. I found out that I wasn’t the only coward out there. As I was coaching more and more in corporations, I found out there was a lot of avoidance of conflict. That creates a lot of pain and a lot of dysfunction. For example, people talk around the water cooler about other people but never take it to their face. I saw the dangers and hardships that come with avoidance.

You have a central belief about conflict that resonates through the book. Could you talk more about that? 

Yes, I believe that conflict is a very good thing. When I do seminars, one of the very first questions I ask the audience is, what do you think of when you think of conflict? The answers I get are words like anger, destruction, harm, low performance. I ask them, what do these phrases have in common? They’re all negative.

Then I ask what good things come from conflict, and I get answers about conflict creating greater intimacy and self-respect. You gain greater respect from others when you’re able to stand up and do conflict well. Notice the emphasis on well.

I point out that the problem isn’t the conflict, because we have to have conflict. If we bring passion and different beliefs to the table, we’ll have conflict. The key is, how do we handle that conflict? It’s not that conflict is bad – just our technique is. The problem is that not that many people have great models for handling conflict.

No kidding! 

How many people do you know who could say, “My parents were great at handling conflict; every talk brought them closer, they talked respectfully and worked it out, and it just really helped my parents to have great conflict.”?

You just don’t hear it. The same is true for the workplace. We don’t have great models, and we don’t tend to teach it. I do teach it because I believe if we catch this at an early age, we can teach people how to have good conflict.

If you look at society, there are so many examples of people avoiding dealing with situations. For instance, you see the way avoidance manifests itself negatively in addictions and violence.

That’s right. With addictions, sometimes people are medicating the pain versus diving in and dealing with the pain.

Let’s talk about why people avoid conflict. Is it simply to avoid feeling? What is perceived to be negative feelings? Or is it more than that?

In my book, I write about 10 fears that people have about conflict. The first is the fear of being physically harmed if they have the conflict.

The second is fear of rejection; the fear that the other person will withdraw their love or push you away. Then, we have the fear of loss of relationship, which goes even deeper – that they’re not only going to push you away but that they’re going to abandon you. Some people are afraid of anger; they’ve never had a good model for handling anger, so sometimes anger itself frightens them.

On the flipside is being selfish – people don’t speak up or stand up for their needs because it’ll look like they’re selfish.

Others fear saying the wrong thing. Because they’re not well-versed in handling conflict, they’re afraid that the wrong thing is going to come out of their mouth, or that they’ll spew out something they don’t want to say.

There’s also the fear of failing – that nothing positive will come of it. Then, there’s the fear of hurting someone else; of damaging someone where it can’t be repaired.

And some people fear getting what they want; that if they stand up for what they want, they might actually get it. So they avoid conflict just to avoid getting what they want!

That’s certainly interesting. I’ve found that the fear of succeeding is more prevalent than the fear of failing.

Absolutely! And it’s trickier to deal with. People fear the responsibility and expectations that come with success, so they avoid it.

The final fear is the fear of intimacy. Some people fear the feeling of being that close to someone. Many people are scared to death of that level of intimacy.

These are very powerful things to consider in terms of how one approaches or doesn’t approach conflict. 

And if you don’t know the fear that drives you, it’s pretty hard to overcome it.

You’re a very successful coach and you’ve worked with a lot of businesses and corporations. What do you feel is important for coaches to know about their own approach to conflict? 

What’s really crucial is to know what internal response you have when someone brings conflict to you.

For example, if I’m a conflict-avoider and I’m coaching someone in the business area, my first response is not going to be to think of how they can deal directly with their colleagues. If I’m afraid of conflict, I could actually support avoidance.

Let’s take having a conflict with your boss. A lot of people say, “I’m mad at my boss and I feel this way, but there’s no way I can bring it up to him or her because they’ll get mad.” But if I, as a coach, have conflict-avoidance issues, I’m going to join right in with how I feel versus taking the time to ask the questions like:  Is that true?  How many people has your boss fired because of conflict? How does your boss handle it when someone has a disagreement? Let’s look at that. Let’s pull out your wisdom of what you’ve seen to see what’s really true with that.

If I don’t know my own response to conflict, I may not go there.

I couldn’t agree with you more. As coaches, we don’t have to put ourselves on pedestals and be experts and know everything, but we certainly have to be willing to explore the areas we ask our clients to explore.

Absolutely! And if you’re a great coach, you’ll have conflict with clients too.

Let’s talk about that. What suggestions do you have for coaches who experience conflict with a client? 

First, you need the right mindset. The mindset has to be, Great! This is good for us!

Conflict with the client will actually bring the two of you closer together. You become more valuable to the client if you can handle conflict well. Conflict is an opportunity for great growth in that relationship.

Next, you need to know the different causes of conflict, and explore what is happening between you and your client that is causing the conflict. You need to be able to normalize it.

One of the things I talk about is behavioral styles. We are going to have differences and conflict when we view the world differently. I’m kind of a spontaneous, energetic person, and if I’m dealing with a client who’s very linear and perfectionistic, there’s going to be great chances for the two of us to have conflict. We approach the world differently. But, that’s okay; that’s good. If we never have that conflict, then one of us isn’t fully engaged.

And what I’m hearing from you is that it’s not about making one person good or bad, right or wrong. 


It’s a natural occurrence to have conflict, to have disagreement. 

That’s right. You want to have conflict in teams; to have a team that thinks all the same way is a very dangerous thing. No one’s challenging the decisions; no one’s showing each other how to think in different ways. That’s a very dangerous thing for a company.   Then you get locked in and make potentially very bad decisions.

Can you give an example of a situation with a coach and a client where you could offer some pointers when conflict shows up? 

Here’s an interesting one. You have aggressive top performers who perform very well in a corporation and they’ve been promoted to manager, but they’re bulldozing people around them left and right. So I’ll get called in to coach.

The person may not want to be coached. Of course, I won’t coach them if they don’t want to be coached, but I will have that first meeting to see if we can get them on board. Often these people have a level of pride because they’ve performed well. They see coaching as “touchy-feely” stuff, so there’s immediate conflict when I walk in the door.

My objective at that point is to join them in some genuine way. One of the techniques for dealing with conflict is called the 100 + 1% principle. This is even if I disagree with 99 percent of what you just said, I’m going to find that one percent that I do agree with, and I’m going to agree with it 100 percent. It has to be genuine, genuine energy of agreement before I present any other viewpoint. If I don’t do this, I’m doomed.

So, when I come in, I say: “This isn’t touchy-feely; it’s about business aspects. You may say you’re not aggressive, but your 360s have shown for two years that you are aggressive, so you need to accept this and you need to go after it.”

What are the odds that that’s going to work?

Well, that creates a defensive mechanism, and it makes me think of acknowledgment. It’s a way to demonstrate that you’re meeting the person halfway and you’re listening to them. 

Absolutely! So I’ll come in and say, “You know; you’re right. You haven’t gotten where you’ve gotten in life by being a touchy-feeling person. You’ve gotten where you are by working hard. I’m not here to tell you that you haven’t been successful. You’re feeling positive about the way you approach things, but you’re getting some feedback that’s different. Can we look at what’s happening with that? I know your results and I know this is impacting the results you’re trying to get.”

Now all of a sudden we’re on the same page. I never worry about making them “confess” that they’re aggressive – I don’t care. We can talk about the perception that they have to deal with. We move into things like different styles of people. They don’t have to admit anything; I’m not going to make them admit they did anything bad in there.

People generate enough reasons to feel badly about themselves.

Yes, and I think that’s one of our greatest challenges as coaches: how do we make them feel safe to go after areas of growth? You don’t have to be bad to look at areas of growth.

How common is conflict in organizations? 

I think it’s extremely common in terms of top performers getting advanced. This is a classic problem; there are lots of books about that, but they don’t show how to handle it.

There’s still so much avoidance of conflict that it’s difficult for companies to admit to it. They’ll say they want to work on communication; they don’t want to admit they need to work on conflict. We have to move from conflict to talking about good communication. It’s very common.

I’ve worked with Fortune 500s and mid-size companies, and I’ve found that avoidance is even greater in mid-size businesses – especially family businesses! Actually, those are a lot of fun. To make an impact on a family’s life as well as on a business’ life is a great thing.

If there’s one thing you could leave the readers with – one big takeaway in terms of how they define conflict or look at conflict – what would that be? 

I would look at conflict as a chance to grow myself and to grow closer to another human being. I really think that’s it.

When I avoid conflict, I build fear, and avoidance is gasoline for fear. Any time we avoid something, we make it stronger. It’s like someone who’s been in a car wreck; the next time they get in a car, they’re nervous. But if they keep getting in and driving, after a while they’re fine. But some people will say, “I’m not getting into a car today.” Each time they avoid it, they grow more afraid, and the fear just keeps building.

So, make sure your choice of facing something or avoiding something really serves you well.

Tim Ursiny, Ph.D., CBC, RCC 

Dr. Tim Ursiny is the founder and CEO of Advantage Coaching & Training, LLC. He is an executive coach and trainer specializing in helping individuals and teams reach peak performance and greater life satisfaction.  His areas of focus include team building, conflict resolution, coaching skills, and building maximum confidence. Dr. Tim has published several videos and workbooks on the topics of coaching, conflict resolution, and motivation in the workplace. His most recent book, “The Coward’s Guide to Conflict” was published by Sourcebooks, Inc and is currently in its third printing, as well as translated into four foreign languages. He is frequently quoted in such newspapers and periodicals as the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Reader’s Digest and People Magazine. He has also appeared on ABC radio, CNN radio, NBC news, and VH-1 News. His next two books will be published in early 2005. These are “The Confidence Plan: How to Build a Stronger You” and a book tentatively titled “The Critical Yard” which teaches a coaching approach to the sales process.

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