If You Want to Resolve Conflict Then You Have to Make it Safe

close up of man offering a cup of latte to a friend.

We don’t like conflict and we’re often not good at handling it. As I’ve shared in recent blog posts, some people impose their will on others. Some withdraw and give in. And others avoid it altogether. The consequence is that sensitive issues go unresolved and our relationships suffer.

In my last article, I talked about the importance of preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally before entering into high stakes or sensitive conversations. Successfully resolving conflict begins with managing ourselves, our own thoughts and emotions, as we enter into potentially volatile interchanges.

In this article I want to talk about the invitation phase of resolving conflict, which is opening up these conversations in a way that helps the parties feel safe enough to talk openly about their differences and resolve their disagreements. We’re trying to create a context of safety, respect, and openness so that we experience one another as allies rather than adversaries, so people will want to cooperate.

Research tells us that a conversation that starts poorly will end poorly 94% of the time. If it feels harsh in the beginning it will almost always feel harsh at the end. It is very hard to recover from a poor start which is why this phase is so important.


The most important skill in the invitation phase of dialogue is leveling. A leveling message has three parts.

  1. First, you get an issue out on the table without communicating blame or hostility.
  2. Second, you express your desire to understand the other person’s point of view (which makes it safe for them to talk).
  3. And third, you let them know you want to work things out together.

These statements are usually fairly short and to the point. You’re not jumping into a discussion of the facts of a situation. You’re neutralizing a situation and extending an invitation to talk. Here are a couple of examples:

“I was surprised by what you said this morning during our coffee break. It seems you have some strong feelings about this matter which I’d like to understand. I wonder if we could talk about it either now or later today when it’s more convenient for you.”

“I’d like to talk about Dad’s will. I think we have a different understanding of what he intended and what is fair to each of us. I’d like to understand your point of view and share mine as well and see if we can work this out without getting into an ugly family battle.”

You can not only use a leveling statement at the start of a conversation but also when you’re in the middle of a heated discussion and realize it’s not going well. For example:

“Hey, Rajiv, I’m not feeling good about how this is escalating and you’re probably not either. I want to understand how you’re feeling and what we can do to calm our discussion and get it back on track.”

Other Invitation Skills

There are a few other skills you may use during invitation, or throughout dialogue, to make sure you stay on track. One skill is clarifying your intent. This is making contrasting statements that make your motives for talking more apparent and take some of the apprehension out of talking.

For example, “I don’t intend to say you’re at fault here. I do intend to say that I think it’s something we both have some responsibility for.” Or, “I don’t mean to say we have a poor relationship. I do mean to say that there are a few issues I need to discuss so we can work even better together.” Or, “I don’t want to throw cold water on your plans. However, I do want to share a few thoughts and give you some input.”

You make such statements when it would be easy for someone to misunderstand why you want to talk or when they don’t trust your motives or your desire to understand and support them.

Clarifying Concerns

Related to clarifying your intent is clarifying concerns. The idea is to get any concerns about entering into dialogue out into the open at the beginning. Being open about concerns deals directly with the reasons people may be hesitant to talk openly and thereby diffuses these issues and makes it safer to enter into a conversation. It makes the conversation more real, helps establish your credibility and authenticity, and builds greater trust in both the communication process and the relationship. Others know that you’re sensitive to their deeper reservations.

Here’s an example. “A concern I have in talking is that our relationship will be harmed. Please know that I only bring this up so we can better understand each other and resolve whatever is keeping us from working well together.”

Or, “I’m concerned that by bringing this up you’ll misunderstand my loyalty and support of you in your role as my boss.” You can then go on and say,I am supportive and don’t want you to doubt that because I bring this issue to your attention.”

So, you think about any hesitancy or resistance that you or the other person may feel about entering into a conversation. If natural, early in the conversation, you share this and then give the person a chance to comment. It is important, after they do so, that you reassure them of your positive intent and commitment to their interest as well as your own.

Stating Your Commitment to Collaboration

Another skill, during invitation, is stating your commitment to collaboration. This is making statements that sound like, “My intent is to be helpful and not divisive.” “My motive is that each of us come away feeling heard and able to come up with solutions that we can agree upon.” “I want this to be a win for you as well as for me.” “It’s important to me that we talk about this in a way that feels respectful and collaborative.” “I want to own my part in what is happening in our relationship. I don’t want you to get the idea that I blame you.” And so on.

These statements diffuse apprehension on the part of the other party and make it more likely that they’ll engage with you in a constructive conversation.

You will most always start the conversation with a leveling statement and then use the other skills if it seems like things could go off-track. They help create an atmosphere of trust and safety and let the other person know that your intent is to be constructive.

Homecoming—Example of Phase II

So, here’s a continuation of the conversation between Ellen and George, which I began in my last post. Remember that Ellen took some time to prepare herself to talk to George. She’s now ready to approach him.

After doing some personal preparation, Ellen approaches George and makes a leveling statement. “Hey George, I’m wondering if we could take a few minutes to talk about our spat when you came home tonight. It must have been pretty stressful for you to walk into a house with a frustrated wife and screaming kids and I want to understand your point of view. I don’t want what happened to create distance between us and wonder if we can talk about it so we both feel better.”

 George: “Look, it’s late and I don’t want to get into an argument. Can’t we just forget it?”

Ellen: “We could forget it. But it seems like that’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not getting better. Understand that my intent isn’t to blame you or start an argument. I know I have a big part in what’s happening. I simply want to help make our evenings more pleasant.”

George may be ready to talk and jump right into explaining his point of view. In that case, they’re moving into the exploration phase and Ellen will start by listening.

 On the other hand, maybe George is not ready to talk tonight. He may need a little more emotional space. Ellen may say, “I understand if tonight isn’t good timing. It’s been stressful already. Could you be thinking about it and let’s find some time to talk in the next day or two?”  

Notice how Ellen is using a few of the invitation skills to not only open up a conversation but make it safe for her husband to join her. And notice how her work during the preparation phase gives her the emotional strength to persist in pressing for a conversation while trying to make it a win for her husband as well.

A Self Assessment

So consider yourself. How skilled are you in opening up sensitive conversations? Do you know how to use a soft-start-up? Are you able to initiate a conversation in a way that makes it safe for you and others to talk openly? Are you able to persist when others want to avoid a conversation or derail your attempts to resolve a disagreement or misunderstanding? Would you benefit from practicing the skills of leveling, clarifying your intent, concerns and your commitment to collaboration?

In the next few weeks, I’ll continue to share more skills in dialogue and resolving conflict. In the meantime, I want to invite you to pay attention to how you and others around you initiate these conversations and look for opportunities to use the invitation skills as you talk through sensitive issues.


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