Conflict – managing or mastering?

Conflict is part of every relationship. How do we master the skills needed to deal consciously with conflict? How do we learn how to be assertive and how to be co-operative? We know that conflict plays out in the behaviour of a colleague that complains about unequal salaries, a family member who does not stick to agreements, or a member of the residents’ association finding fault with everything the committee does. We sometimes forget that conflict is also present in the mundane things that irritate and frustrate.

Many of us have benefitted from conflict management or conflict mediation interventions. But conflict management has one gaping weakness. Too often in the management of conflict, not enough attention is paid to the shifts individuals must make to establish a new conflict culture in a team, group, or household.

Conflict coaching addresses this weakness. An individual and the conflict coach work together to identify and develop the skills necessary to deal sensibly with conflict. Conflict coaching can produce the kind of relationships where those skills can be mastered.

Three approaches

Conflict management is a function of management and leadership. The task of the manager is to identify existing and potential conflicts. They then lead the process of resolving the dispute in a sensible and fair way.[1] Typically conflict management leans heavily on the five modes of conflict handling developed by Thomas and Kilmann.

Another approach is conflict mediation. Conflict mediation as an informal or formal process used by two or more parties uses to find a peaceful solution to their dispute.[2]It is the function of an independent person, the mediator. The mediator can use a facilitative, evaluative, or transformative approach.

Conflict mastering is a function of the conflict coach. Mastering the mental, emotional, and relational skills to deal with conflict is the outcome of a process in which coachee and coach work together.


Conflict, frustration, and self-talk

Conflict is understood as an inter-personal or intra-group problem, often defined as harmful or dysfunctional work relationships. Often it is only recognised after a chaotic meeting that tends to derail a critical project. Initially, the team leader or manager will facilitate a process of resolution or agreement. From time-to-time, they will employ the help of an outside consultant or conflict manager to assist.

Coaching sees conflict as conflicting needs and the expectation that those needs will be met in the workplace, family, and other social environments. Conflict begins with the awareness of frustration over unfulfilled needs and the suspicion that I am not valued. We can say that all disputes arise from the frustration we experience and the ensuing self-talk. It is frustration and the way we assign meaning to the causes thereof that leads to misunderstandings, highlights differences create discomfort, and eventually polarisation. Conflict coaching aims to uncover the existence and source of frustrated expectations and create an awareness of the way the frustrations play out in the here and now.

Two misconceptions and behaviour change

One misconception is that conflict is bad relationships and can be fixed through an acceptable compromise. Another one is that if we fix this relationship, conflict can even be useful and strengthen the team. However, the reality of conflict is not that simple. If conflict arises within our self it means that fixing relationships, resolving disagreements, negotiating peace, creating new agreements are dependent on changes individuals are willing to make in the way they think and act.

Knowing the five modes of dealing with conflict highlighted by Thomas-Kilmann is valuable here. They teach that competing, compromise, accommodation, collaboration, and avoidance are all legitimate ways to deal with conflict. All five modes require a change in behaviour, away from a default way of dealing with conflict to the one most appropriate for the situation. It is affecting these behaviour changes that conflict mastering comes into its own as an approach to conflict.

Systems versus person

In the teams that I was part off, we dealt with conflict in one of two ways. Both approaches deal with the team as a system. One method was to deal with conflict as a systemic problem in the team. This approach often resulted in a costly breakaway or intervention by a consultant. A second approach was to deal with conflict through so-called honest conversations. It often results in repeated and unproductive conversations and never dealt with the real causes of conflict in the team or the changes individuals must make.

The point here is that systems (the group) consist of sub-systems (individual members) that contribute to the efficiency of the group. If the change in the system must be sustainable, the behaviour of the critical parts of the system must also change with it. Conflict management focussing on the team needs conflict coaching to assist individual members to change through a process of mastering the required skills.

The process of conflict coaching

The ICF defines coaching as a “thought-provoking and creative process to maximise the professional and personal potential of the coachee.” This maximising of potential happens by creating deep awareness of the needs and motivations for our behaviour by bringing about mental changes and physical awareness. Conflict coaching appropriates these changes in an environment where conflict could become disruptive or is disruptive.

For a person to change it is sometimes necessary to unpack their needs, expectations, fears, and motivations that cause behaviour patterns. The coaching partnership provides safety, awareness, and planning for change. With enough experience, the ability to act appropriately becomes second nature and free up energy to focus on the main task of the group. But coaching is not a quick fix.

Two final remarks

Since conflict is everywhere, teams need to be pro-active in preparing for conflict. Conflict coaching can be effective in an individual process or as support of a broader conflict management process. Conflict coaching is the pro-active approach that saves energy to focus on the essential task of the group. Every team member can benefit from better personal response to conflict precisely because conflict is everywhere.



With more and more online meetings happening, you can expect increasing conflict in online meetings. Research shows that online conflict tends to escalate more and quicker. Do you handle it in the same way as in a face to face meeting? There is this saying that an online meeting is the same as a face-to-face meeting; it is just very different.

The challenge is to deal not only with opposing needs or expectations, but also the intricacies  of human dynamics and the limitations of technology. Body language is such an essential aspect of communication that the “second-hand nature” of it in online meetings is a significant liability. Without body language, it is difficult to pick up on the nuances in the responses of the other party. This can lead to a missed opportunity.

The first key to successful conflict management is to lead from the front.  The leadership of online teams is not limited to task leadership. A virtual meeting is still a meeting between persons with needs and expectations, with histories that the leader must leverage to improve the performance of the team that meets.

Identify what style of conflict handling is appropriate for the situation. Conflict is about unmet needs and expectations. There are two factors in the way people respond to conflict. The first is how assertive they are in pursuing the satisfaction of their needs and expectations. The second is how co-operative they are in meeting the needs of the other party, leaving their own needs and expectations unmet. The problem is when neither party is prepared to accommodate the other one, or if it is always the same person that accommodates leaving him or her increasingly dissatisfied.  There are five ways a leader can respond to conflict. Each one has its place and making the correct decision can go a long way in resolving the dispute. The first is competing (highly assertive behaviour). Second is accommodating (hardly assertive behaviour, yet very helpful at times). Half-way between these two is finding a compromise. A fourth response is avoiding the conflict, which is low on both assessertiveness and co-operativeness. Avoidance does have its advantages. The fifth mode is to build a collaboration between the opposing parties. Building collaboration is seldom possible in one meeting, however, one session can lay a foundation for successful collaboration.

The second key is identifying the conflict early. Conflict does not start with a blow-up in the meeting (or before or immediately after the meeting!). The process of conflict begins with different needs or expectations that remain unmet, which grows into disagreements, misunderstanding, discontent and expressions of unhappiness, and eventually polarisation causing disruption.  In an online meeting, it is especially important to pick up on disagreements and disputes early. Allowing conflict to escalate creates a situation where the rest of the meeting becomes uncomfortable and the levels of participation drops. In face to face meetings, observing body language, facial expressions and tone of voice helps to identify potential conflicts early on.


The third key is the limitations and strengths of working online. One advantage of an online meeting is that there is a tendency to listen and not to interrupt. But participants in the meeting are more likely to take disagreements with their ideas personally when delivered from a distance. Even in video meetings, it is not always possible to pick up on the cues which are communicated by non-verbal means (e.g. playing with a pen or drawing pictures on a page). A discussion between two participants can exclude others in the meeting and escalate as the communication is less tempered. We all have seen how people on social media and the comment section on webpages lose a sense of judgement. 

The fourth key is being prepared. Being prepared means, that you not only understand the issues but also have a process ready to help you facilitate the conflict. I use the acronym AFRICA to help me to remember the elements of a successful conflict mediation process.

·         Appreciate the issue and the people. Appreciation is to acknowledge the importance of the problem and valuing the team-members and their contributions. Do this without being manipulative by complementing the different parties in the conflict. Emphasise the value each one brings to the team and how both can contribute to the resolution.

·         Focus on the problem. A vital role of the leader is helping participants to focus on the issue and not on the “warring parties”. Make sure that everyone is clear on the purpose of the meeting and understand how the conflict relates to the purpose of the meeting.

·         Respect persons. Even if you focus on the problem, it is still necessary to respect the persons and the fact that they have the right of holding opposing perspectives. One way of doing this is to ask each party to state his or her case in 3 minutes. Then allow the rest of the meeting to identify the strengths of the argument. (Another way is to ask the parties to highlight the advantages of the other party’s arguments.)

·         Identify the attitudes and information that can contribute to a solution and better decision-making. Do not work for a compromise before it is the only or the preferred option for the situation. Accept that resolving the conflict can become a more extended discussion. It could even be necessary to have a separate process to reach a point of collaboration. At this point, it is imperative to act in line with the conflict-resolution leadership style you have identified inpreparation.

·         Commitment. Work towards designing a commitment that includes the opposing parties and yourself as chairperson. Indeed, the commitment to tasks is the responsibility of the team and not only the conflicting parties. However, it could be necessary to give the opposing parties extra duties such as working together to sort out the differences or a specific problem. In this case, the chairperson must commit to assisting where necessary.

·         Accountability. Hold the parties accountable for the decision they have made in the same way that the rest of the team is accountable. Liability must be practical. Good feedback at the next meeting and some check-ins in between meetings to ensure clarity, could go a long way.


A well-known e-mediator, Peter Adler, explained the success of the team he was part of as dealing with “the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunities lost or found.” It sounds about right, but the tips above can be useful to do just that.

My storie


Einde Mei 2018 het ek die diens van Fontainebleau Gemeenskapskerk verlaat. In hierdie video vertel ek vir die eerste keer hoe ek gedink het en wat ek geleer het in die proses. Kliek op die foto.


Die ses goed wat ek geleer het in die proses is:


1. Hanteer jou emosies. Dit is werklik.

2. Beskerm jou integriteit. Laat jou waardes jou lei.

3. Wees eerlik met jouself al is dit ook soms moeilik.

4. Bou ‘n ondersteuningstruktuur met ‘n verskeidenheid mense en rolle.

5. Verstaan waaroor dit gaan en met wie die konflik is. Behou perspektief.

6. Kyk vorentoe. Daar is pyn en nood in die wêreld en jy het talente en ervaring.


Skakel my gerus by 083 708 3405 of stuur ‘n e-pos aan as jy verder wil gesels oor my ervaring en hoe dit dalk vir jou ook van waarde kan wees



Newsletter Feb 2020

Excellence in Teamwork

Christine Jordaan (PBS College), Ulrike Schöttler and I  will again present our workshop on building relationships at work and home. The first workshop is in Douglasdale on the 10th March 2020. The second workshop is in Jet Park on 24th March 2020. The take home skills from this workshop include:

         Understand your behaviour in groups

         How to build solid relationships

         How to communicate effectively

         How to improve understanding

         Know five ways to respond to conflict

         Understand when to use the appropriate response

         How to have that difficult conversation


The cost is R1450.00 per person. Please see my website,, for more information or contact me at 
“Coahing” in Afrikaans?
During the past few months people from very diverse backgrounds suggested that I should focus my coaching on Afrikaans-speakers, or at least develop a market amongst Afrikaans-speakers. Together with a marketing company I am doing some research to determine the potential market for coaching amongst Afrikaans-speakers. Afrikaans-speakers on my mailing list will receive a link to a survey I this regard on Wednesday 26 February 2020. I will appreciate if you take the few minutes needed to answer the 10 questions.


Integrating being-human
The Collaborative Integration web presentations about Collaborative the integration of being human into business is currently being filmed. It should soon be available on the You Tube-site of Colab.

Find out more about my coaching, mediation and empowerment services by visiting the website (I am doing some work on it), reading my blogs and liking the facebook page of Oorsprong Human Development.


Live your story in 2020, because it is a good story to live.


Conflict-fit Managers

A conflict-fit manager is one who is ready to accept and embrace conflict as an opportunity for development and growth. What are the qualities of a conflict-fit manager?


Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to self-motivate, to control impulses, to be persistence, to demonstrate zeal, to show empathy and to social deftness.(Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury, 1996) Emotional intelligence allows the manager to be present in any discussion about the conflict or with the parties involved in the conflict.  


Self-awareness. Conflict-fit managers understand how conflict affects their behaviour and their response to the behaviour of adversaries. They are aware of the triggers, often with deeply sub-conscious origins, that determine their responses to conflict. Being aware of these triggers allow for a more measured and controlled response in situations of conflict.

Communication skills. Communication is attending to someone with empathy and connecting to people. The skill to listen with attention is probably the most import communication skill of a conflict-fit manager. While there is value in acknowledging the speaker and note down an important point, but an attentive listener listens without judgement. Attentive listening develops the ability to ask impactful questions and to respond with clarity.

Lateral thinking. Many of us shy away from difficult conversations until we can no longer avoid them. Conflict-fit managers face difficult conversations looking to design new outcomes, rather than choosing conventional solutions. Design, according to De Bono, (Edward de Bono, Conflicts, Vermilion, 2018-edition) has two attributes – a sense of purpose and a sense of fit. Persons, experience and ideas are brought together to shape a response that is relevant and practical.

These attributes can be nurtured, which means that every manager can be a conflict-fit manager.



[This article first appear in the PMR Africa of August 2019]

Why conflict became my thing!

Conflict is part of our lives. Edward de Bono says somewhere that in our modern society conflict is required of us. Dealing with conflict is not an option, neither is the tendency to argue us out of conflict. Can conflict be an opportunity to increase purpose, growth, conversation and connectedness in the workplace?

Over the years I have been involved in impactful conflicts – from my first fist fights with my friends Karel, the other Johan, and my cousin Maurice (I am not sure that we did throw a few punches) to some major conflicts in my work environment.

Throughout my career I have been accused of avoiding conflict because I believed reconciliation was the desired way. In the past year I had to do a lot of re-thinking about my choices – and my contribution to these conflicts. In the process I discovered people do not avoid conflict for the sake of avoiding. Often there are deep seated, often subconscious forces, that lead to avoidance and accommodation, or prevent collaboration.

One discovery I made was that rather than avoid, I accommodate others’ needs to deal with conflict rather than avoiding conflict. I went through all the training in different models, received the advice of well-meaning colleagues and consultants. It helped but did not change my response to conflict fundamentally until I discovered that when I avoid conflict it is often not avoiding the inter-personal conflict, but rather avoiding the conflict inside myself.

That is where my passion to help people to deal with conflict by literally mining the conflict, go deep and uncover the real motivation to avoid or compete or accommodate, uncover the motivation to settle for compromise instead of doing the hard work to collaborate. Conflict is expressed in behaviour. Behaviour changes when we develop a new consciousness of how we live, when we begin to understand how our behavior is influenced by our subconscious motivation and commitments.

Conflict teaches me much about purpose (see note), helps me grow, opens new doors for conversation and challenges me to connect with a diverse group of people. That is why conflict is now my thing!

Note: I also discovered that making this shift to “coaching conflict” makes both strategic and spiritual sense. All business people know that differentiating yourself from the competition is of strategic importance. At the same time “coaching conflict” is an expansion of the calling to ministry which I held since my childhood.


Source: Edward de Bono, Conflicts. Vermillion, London, 1991

Worthwhile citizens

In my previous blog, I wrote:“A vision is contextualised purpose.” Let me try and explain this with the case of a head of school recently (I do this with the person’s consent). She has more than 25 year’s experience of which the last five year as head of school. From middle 2018 she began to ask questions about her vision for the school as circumstances in the country, the educational environment and the specific school community changed. I do not have space to elaborate on these far-reaching changes in this blog.

We began to talk about her life’s purpose. While she does not want to build the school’s vision on her life’s purpose is, she want them aligned. In that way, she can believe in the direction of the school. The first part of her journey was an exploration of purpose and values, beginning with purpose. When asked, she formulated her purpose as “wanting to leave an enduring contribution to the betterment of society.” It was still vague and very general as life-purposes often are. As we continue exploring the themes, she began to appropriate that purpose to the school context. She came up with an inspiring concept of educating children to become worthwhile citizens for a worthwhile community.* We began to explore that with questions such as: what would it look like if a student (Thebogo was a fictitious student we used) is a worthwhile citizen?

What would a school producing people such as Thebogo look like? How would she know that the school she leads is successful in producing adults (alumni) such as Tebogo? It became clear to us that she values community involvement and leadership (or initiators), volunteer service, professional accomplishments, supportive (family) relationships, honesty and integrity as important characteristics of worthwhile citizens.

We then turned to questions about the context. What changes are happening in the school environment? How does it make the school different from previous years? What cause the changes? Are there systemic factors that she cannot control, and how do these contribute to the changes? What can she control and what must she accept as part of the reality of being an educator in South Africa 2019? It soon becomes clear what was important to her. She focussed on prominent contextual factors that related to the personal life of individual members of the community, such as family structures (and the breaking down of these structures), violence and opportunity to contribute to society. These factors fundamentaly impact on children’s ability to develop and learn, and become “worthwhile citizens” of society.

We can now begin to envision what a school producing worthwhile citizens in a context of limited opportunity, family violence and structural break down looks like for Tebogo. From this she can now lead her staff, all of which has an own sense of purpose and contextual insight, towards a new relevant vision for the school.

* She acknowledge that the concept “worthwhile citizens” is from a quoteby an anonymous author. 

Vision is contextualised purpose.

In my previous blog, I wrote:“A vision is not a goal or an objective. It explains the context and inspires action.” Last week, during a meeting, I wrote on my notes: Vision is “contextualised purpose.”

Vision begins with a fundamental human question, that of purpose or meaning. I was recently introduced to Jack Canfield’s 10-step process of discerning our life purpose. The steps dealt with love, enjoyment, intuition, idealism, and fulfilment. But there was also space to consider financial realities, good and bad relationships, health, boundaries and struggles. The point is this: purpose has context, and that context includes more than a social and economic analysis, it also includes intuition, creativity and experience.

Vision is contextualised purpose. My life’s mission is to journey with people in “developing a new imagination for our future.” This idea does not come from somewhere. It comes from a heart that sees much suffering and despair. It comes from a mind that seeks to understand a specific history and the communities that experience that history. It comes from a belief that rejects the idea that we have to choose between freedom and fairness. This is only part of my context.

Understanding the explanation of context as vision, and not merely as a report or research findings, has one advantage – it allows for values such as creativity, imagination and appreciation to become part of the talk of the team. It allows the team members to work with their intuition, to share stories and experience. Intuition challenges dearly held beliefs to give meaning and insight to the images of intuition.

It seems that the envisioning process goes something like this:

experience -> belief + insight -> envision -> embody -> experience

As much as inequality, fraud, crime, economic hardship, abuse and violence are part of my context, my heart, head and gut are also part of my context. Only when I begin to understand this, vision becomes grounded and inspiring.


Until we reach the tipping point

For me, a vision must be compelling and inspiring. It comes from the heart. Carl Jung said: “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” You do not gather around a table of a flip chart and begin to write a vision. In a group, it is the self-awareness of the leader that will ensure that a vision exists before the team gathers around the table or the flip chart.

Vision is an author. I like the idea of an imagined future. But without imagination, we cannot see an alternative to that which we have. Imagination calls forth creativity, it involves the emotions, it leads to understanding, and it awakens hope – hand, heart, mind and will.

But a vision is also practical. It changes behaviour, influences decisions, and most important, brings people together. In other words, vision determines the mission, the task at hand and empowers those who have the responsibility for the task. A good mission is obtainable, albeit that it requires many hours of hard work in the back office. But a vision is not a goal or an objective. It explains the context and inspires action.


Thus, let us imagine a shared future and built a vision – one person at a time until we reach the tipping point. (see: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, published by ABACUS, 2013).

An inspiring future or stuck in the past?

The change of year provides a moment of reflection and assessment of our lives, careers and relationships.  Not all of us are into making New year’s resolution. I certainly am not!! Most of us are clear about our big goals and targets for the year, such as “I want to expand my business,” or “I want to obtain my MBA.” Still, many of us do have smaller goals that sound like resolutions for the next period (new year?).

The first week in February is probably a good time to assess our progress on these smaller goals. It is also a good time to ask whether this is an important matter to attend to. One way to assess the goal is to ask a question that Debbie Ford (The Right Questions, published by HarperOne, 2004) poses: “Will this choice (resolution or goal) propel me toward an inspiring future or will it keep me stuck in the past?”

This question helped me to understand where the goal comes from. Is it born out of your vision for your life, or out of fear? A resolution born from vision creates awareness and hope. It contributes time and effort to the bigger picture of my life. But, a resolution born from fear prevents us from taking risks, keeps us from believing in the value of our choices.


Thus, “will your choice (resolution) propel you toward an inspiring future or will it keep you stuck in the past?” If the answer is “yes, it will propel me to an inspiring future”, then it is worth to be consciously present in all you do – even if it is a small goal such as becoming a compassionate listener!