The Right Way to Have Tough Conversations

Conflict can make or break your company. Here's what to do when the argument is unavoidable.
The Right Way to Have Tough Conversations
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Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP
Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In the early 1900s, Aldi was a small family grocery store in Germany. After inheriting the business from their father, Theodor and Karl Albrecht expanded their father’s single store to a chain of hundreds, bringing low cost, high-quality groceries to towns and cities across the country.

In 1960, the two brothers had a disagreement that led to a fracture in the company, breaking it into two independent businesses, Aldi Sud and Aldi Nord. Now, the two companies compete globally, with Aldi Nord owning Trader Joe’s and Aldi Sud running the Aldis in the US.

Both companies have cult-like followings for their innovative product models and inexpensive food, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of foothold they’d have on the market if they hadn’t split sixty years ago. It’s hard for me to stomach that a business that clearly had staying power was broken over a disagreement between siblings.

Interpersonal conflict is a large reason many companies fail. It can be stressful, create a confusing, uncomfortable workplace environment, and navigating around it is a time suck for everyone.

But conflict can also make us better. Productive conflict can accelerate innovation. In addition to better work outcomes, it can improve relationships and lead to higher job satisfaction.

In order to engage in healthy conflict, we need to be able to make a few baseline assumptions.

  • All parties are intellectually honest. This means they are interested in what is true, whether or not it aligns with their personal beliefs and desires. 

  • The disagreement is not personal. Reflexively, we have a tendency to think that if someone disagrees with us, they are unkind or "against" us. Conflict is not inherently personal. Shelve those judgements before you move forward.

  • Everyone is open-minded to new ideas, and genuinely invested in the best outcome for the company. Resolving a conflict can lead to improved solutions and better long term strategy, but if no one is willing to be see things differently, it's hard to move forward together.

Healthy conflict indicates diverse thought patterns and a personal stake in the work. Learning how to fight well can be good for business. Here are three strategies to make sure you’re fighting towards innovation rather than destruction.

Related: The 10 Benefits of Conflict

1. Stay on the same side of the problem

When I’m getting frustrated— at work or at home— I remind myself that my team is just that: a team. We’re working toward the same goals, sharing in the same triumphs, and working through the same problems. We may sometimes disagree on strategy or the best way forward, but even when we are in opposition, we’re still on the same side.

When you feel like a friend or employee is your adversary, it’s easy to forget that they are also doing their best. But you wouldn’t have a relationship with or hire someone you didn’t think was a good person. Part of building relationships, whether in your personal life or at work, is trust. Assuming good intentions will make you a better manager. Instead of seeing a mistake as a personal failing, by giving people the benefit of the doubt, you can more clearly see individual or institutional skills or knowledge gaps, without putting them on the defensive.

While this is mostly a mindset shift, it can have a meaningful impact on communication. Problem solving as a team strengthens relationships. Framing a conflict not as one person against another but rather as two people against a problem mitigates frustration and improves communication and outcomes. By talking about what “we” want versus what “I” want, you’re signaling that you care about a positive outcome and that you're invested in the long-term viability of a solution for both sides.

I don’t find arguing enjoyable. It’s why I’m an entrepreneur, not a lawyer. If I’m frustrated, I start repeating myself and have the urge to say things I know I’ll regret. When an argument reaches the point that it’s no longer productive, I take a break.

2. You don’t always have to be right

Sometimes, I’ll walk away from a tense conversation and have trouble even recounting what we talked about. I’ll remember how I felt and what I said, but I won’t remember what points the other guy made, just that they were wrong. This is common. When people argue, they often have two similar but parallel conversations. They focus on being right and expressing their point of view rather than listening, level-setting, and problem-solving.

The need to be right can be a death knell for relationships, both personally and professionally. While it’s a totally understandable, natural instinct, if you’re endeavoring only to be right, you’re missing the point of the conflict. Conflict can be a productive opportunity for two people to express their points of view, be heard, and learn. If you’re only worried about winning, you’re limiting the positive impact of the experience.

As a leader and product specialist, much of the time, I may believe that I'm right. But unless I can help my team at JotForm understand and build consensus, being right doesn’t do much to move the company forward. In personal relationships, there’s no fun in being right if your friend stops taking your calls.

Related: 4 Strategies for Reducing Workplace Conflict

3. Let people help you

In a lot of social interactions, and especially in the startup world, people seem to feel like they can’t ask for help. Sometimes, they think it’s a sign of weakness or like the sense of sovereignty that comes from doing things entirely on their own. Often, people feel like asking for help is a burden that will make people resent them or like them less.

According to psychologists, the exact opposite is true. It’s called the Benjamin Franklin effect. The premise is that someone who has already done you a favor is more likely to do you another favor than if you’d done one for them. The underlying theory is based on cognitive dissonance. Basically, we rationalize our actions and our feelings so they are consistent with one another. Someone who has done you a favor will rationalize that they did it because they like you and are therefore more likely to do another.

It makes sense. Being asked for help is flattering. It indicates trust and admiration of expertise. By asking for help instead of leading with a more argumentative stance, you’re showing that you respect the other person and that you’re trying to make a meaningful connection. People who ask for help are perceived as more competent than people who don’t. Of course, be careful not to overdo it, and always show your appreciation.

Related: Seven Winning Negotiation Strategies For Any Situation

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