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Effectively manage conflict to strengthen your business

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 11 June 2015

Conflict does not need to be destructive to an organization or a relationship. In fact, when dealt with properly, it can lead to constructive outcomes like new ideas, acceptance, trust and business growth.

“The good news is: It can actually help us,” said Dr. Becky Stewart-Gross, president of Building Bridges Seminars.



Stewart-Gross presented on being a bridge builder with ways to work through conflict at the PDPW Business Conference held in Madison, Wisconsin, this spring.

Before conflict can be addressed, it helps to be aware of the five main conflict management styles. Stewart-Gross paired each style with an animal to better relate to each type of style and arranged them based on how they fit with the importance of the relationship and the importance of the outcome ( Figure 1 ).

conflict diagram

She encouraged the audience members to think about their childhood and how they dealt with conflict then. Researchers have found that the conflict management style used early in life will be repeated unless the individual chooses to be different.

Each conflict management style is as follows:



The turtle style demonstrates a low importance of relationship and a low importance of outcome. At all costs, the turtle will avoid the conflict, she said.

Everyone should be a turtle at some point, Stewart-Gross said. Particularly when certain conflicts should be avoided. If you need time to cool off, start with being a turtle – or if it’s not necessarily your conflict and you want team members to work it out on their own. Last, a good time to be a turtle is when it’s not resolvable – to literally agree to disagree on certain issues.


The shark style is all about the outcome; it is very low in the importance of the relationship. A shark is a competitor and wants to win. The shark is valuable in times of a true emergency.

“Here’s the problem: Most of us today live in constant crisis mode,” Stewart-Gross said. “Research has found that, over time, the shark method destroys teamwork.”


The shark style is not effective in the long term, but in a true crisis it is important to have.

Teddy bear

The teddy bear will highly value the relationship and do so at the expense of getting things done. This person is accommodating to everything.

“Teddy bears are filled with stuffing ... at some point the seam will break and the stuffing will spill out,” she said, noting this individual is likely to become passive-aggressive.

Stewart-Gross advised to be the teddy bear when the relationship is more important than the outcome.


The fox is right in the middle where the relationship is important and the outcome is important. The fox is helpful when a compromise is needed when short on time. They will work with each person to give something up.

“The fox style is a great one to use, especially when dealing with a shark because the fox style needs to be nimble,” she said.


The owl will fight to have a win-win situation because the relationship and the outcome are extremely important.

While a win-win outcome sounds good, no one should always be the owl, she said. Some people want to collaborate on everything, and they waste too much time.

Four ways to mitigate conflict

Stewart-Gross challenged the audience to think of their favorite style and then start to incorporate each of the other styles as they work through conflict.

She also outlined four ways to mitigate conflict.

1. Diagnose the situation.

Before reacting with a style, stop and diagnose the situation. In that momentary pause, determine the desirable outcome and if it is more or less important than the relationship.

2. Watch what you say .

Word choices make a difference as to how people respond. She recommended using “I” statements rather than “you” statements. For example, “I would like to tell my story without being interrupted,” rather than “You keep interrupting me!” That keeps you from blaming the other person.

Using factual descriptions instead of judgments or exaggerations. Trigger words of “always” and “never” will likely alter the conflict because now the other person will argue the word “always” instead of the point at hand.

Express thoughts, feelings and opinions reflecting ownership. People will blame someone else because of what they chose to be. Instead of “He made me so angry,” consider that it was you who chose to be angry, she said.

Use clear, direct requests. Most people don’t realize how much we end up hinting at what we want. The number one reason people leave organizations is because of the relationship they had with their immediate supervisor. Watch leaders and managers to see that they clearly explain what they want done and how it should be done before shifting blame to the employee.

3. Watch what you do .

When dealing with conflict, is your voice really aggressive or passive? Neither is effective, especially in a conflict situation, Stewart-Gross said. When using your voice, make sure you hear yourself to recognize how you are coming across to others.

Think of your eyes. An aggressive person will give a glare and look right at someone. A passive person won’t engage; instead, they will look down or at something else.

“Our non-verbals give us away so much,” she said. “In these days of multi-tasking, the problem is we actually end up sending a lot of wrong messages that cause a lot of conflict.”

When John F. Kennedy wanted to come across as a caring person, he used a trick he was taught for talking face-to-face with another individual – to only look in one eye. This breaks the glaze and you don’t appear to be staring at the other person. She recommended not doing it all the time, but it is particularly useful in hostile situations.

Watch your posture. Aggressive people appear puffed up, while passive people will make themselves as small as they can be.

Hand movements, such as pointing and making fists with aggressive behavior or folding hands as a passive move, should also be thought about in how you are portraying yourself.

“If you are walking into a conflict situation, understand that your presence is going to be just as important as your message,” she said. “In fact, research has found that your non-verbals are more important than what you actually say.”

4. Have a positive attitude.

Stewart-Gross said the best thing someone can do when dealing with conflict is to have a good attitude.

“Attitude influences our behavior and our job satisfaction. It affects all of those people we are working with. It comes across in our non-verbals, whether we realize it or not, but probably the greatest thing is that it is not fixed,” she said.

Start every single day by thinking positively, and if your attitude should waver, make an adjustment to re-establish positive thoughts.

Sometimes the organization needs to make an adjustment, and doing so can be as simple as a food break, be it donuts, pizza or ice cream, to give refreshment and get everyone back into a better attitude.

Sharing positive things with other people can also help. “When was the last time you talked about the positives? It is so easy to fill meetings with all of the negatives going on,” she said.

With conflict occurring at work and at home, addressing it effectively will allow it to help and strengthen your organization and relationships. PD

Karen Lee
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