Amy Gallo loves a good fight. A Q&A with the woman who wrote the book on conflict.
Last updated March 24, 2022
Amy Gallo loves conflict. So much so that she believes a manager has a duty to encourage it. The author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, Gallo has made a career out of deep dives into waters that the average person would liken to the set of Jaws. Her work applies to anyone with a parent, significant other, friend, colleague, boss, neighbor… in other words, everyone. And like so many other people—albeit mostly boxers—with a taste for a good fight, this conflict expert got her start on the playground.
How does an editor at Harvard Business Review get her first big break in fisticuffs?
I was a precocious kid who liked to be involved in everyone’s business, whether it was the teachers or the other kids on the playground. I was always interested in interpersonal dynamics and how people interact and communicate, including what they did when they were mad at each other.
So, when there was a fight on the playground, and someone started hitting someone else or yelling, I was the person who screamed FIGHT!!! so everyone could come watch. Part of me hoped the audience would tone down the conflict, because no one wants to see anyone else get hit or yelled at. But, I was just very interested in, “How is this all going to turn out?” I assumed everyone else would be really interested too.
If you yell FIGHT and a mob made of children shows up, isn’t that like throwing blood in the water?
My memory of it is that it brought more brokers to the scene. That’s one of the roles I really liked to play. “OK, you’re mad about what? Why are you mad? What can we do …” You know, let’s all make sure that the girls now have the swings for five minutes and then the boys will get them for five minutes. It brought more attention and awareness to the problem so that then, ideally, I could insert myself in it and help.
[Read also: Tackling difficult topics head on: A conversation with Amy Gallo]
You’ve said all of us are conflict avoiders or seekers. Is there a middle role, like the broker you mentioned?
There are more nuanced frameworks, and I certainly like them. For the purposes of my work, I find it easy to think about a continuum from seeker to avoider. But it’s more of a style you adopt, not a strict category you fall into.
We all have a style that we gravitate toward. I tend to be a seeker, but there are lots of situations where I avoid conflict, like certain situations with my husband when I know having the fight is not going to go well. Or there are situations with a client where I think, “I need to get this gig—it doesn’t behoove me to engage in the conflict.”
We all have a style that we gravitate toward. I tend to be a seeker, but there are lots of situations where I avoid conflict, like certain situations with my husband when I know having the fight is not going to go well.
People are adaptable, and ideally we know when a certain style will serve us and when it won’t. And certainly, we try on different ones. I like the idea of a broker. Some people will say to me, “Well, I’m a seeker, but it’s just that I’m comfortable with conflict, and not that I try to encourage it.”
There are definitely people who just don’t mind conflict. They’re not going to avoid it, they’re not going to flame the fire, but they’re fine having disagreements and even helping people out.
[Read also: No Hard Feelings takes on managing emotions at work]
How do we figure out our natural style, and perhaps more important, how do we figure out which style is going to work best in a given situation?
Above all, you have to know what your default style is. Say you’re someone who tends to avoid conflict and you get in a situation, and you’re saying to yourself, “It’s probably best not to dig into this too much, I should just play nice, get things done.” You have to watch yourself if that’s your default style. Avoiding is going to feel comfortable but it may not be right for every situation.
Here’s a path to understanding your default: Think about the last five conflicts you had. What did you do? You can get feedback from trusted friends, co-workers—”How do you see me? Am I a conflict avoider, do I tend to seek out conflict, do I tend to play this broker role?” Taking different personality tests can help too. There’s an instrument called the Thomas-Kilmann instrument, which describes five different conflict-handling modes. Knowing which you adopt can be really useful.
There are many possible goals in negotiating conflict. Are there any that should never be your goal?
Yes. The need to be right. I was just talking to someone whose boss had changed her schedule without informing her, and she was really, really, really, upset. She said, “Isn’t that wrong?” And I said, “Yeah, I think it’s wrong, but clearly your boss doesn’t.”
Right away, you need to set aside the need to prove your boss wrong, and instead, think about what is it that you want. Do you want to get back the schedule you had? Would you like to be informed in advance about schedule changes in the future? Determine what you actually need and then approach the situation with that in mind.
If you just need a positive relationship with your boss because review time is coming up, or because you want to go to work and not have to deal with a tense situation every day, then you may choose to do nothing. You may say, “Okay, I’m not going to take this on. That happened, I can let it go.”
[Read also: Angry like a boss: how to be pissed off at work and stay professional]
Is indirect the same as passive?
There are two different options. One of which is doing nothing, and one of which is indirect. With the indirect, you are actually doing something, but it’s not saying, “Hey, we have a conflict, let’s solve it.”
I don’t think of doing nothing as passive at all. Oftentimes it means taking the high road. Back to that schedule-change example, it was not a passive, “I’m just going to let them run over me.” Rather, it was, “I’m deciding what’s best for the situation and then making an active decision about what to do.”
I don’t think of doing nothing as passive at all. Oftentimes it means taking the high road.
Sounds easy. Too easy?
There are two caveats to the do-nothing option. One of which is, you have to genuinely do nothing. You can’t decide to do nothing but then send passive-aggressive emails to your boss about how horrible the schedule is. That’s not doing nothing. That’s just sabotaging yourself.
The other caveat is that you have to set limits. Luckily, that schedule change wasn’t as extreme as, say, changing her schedule from 9 to 5 to a graveyard shift. But that person does have to decide how many times she’s going to let her boss make decisions that affect her without consulting her. Is this the one time, or is she going to let it go two more times?
And it’s good to put up those parameters for yourself, particularly if you tend to be an avoider. Or you might find you become resentful, unhappy, miserable at work, which way too many people do.
You’ve said that a good manager has a duty to create conflict. Um, I’m scared of that manager?
Don’t be! I 100% believe that for a manager to get the most out of a team, they need to think about the different skills on the team and the goals that they’re trying to accomplish and put people a bit at odds. The classic organizational example is that you have finance trying to rein in every penny, and then you have marketing who’s like, “Let’s spend more!” That’s a good tension to have in an organization, right? You want someone who’s saying, “Hey, let’s be careful,” and someone who’s saying, “Hey, let’s promote our company as much as possible.”
[Read also: Radical Candor: be a better boss by saying exactly what you think]
On the team level, it’s the same thing. If you have someone who’s really process-oriented and slow and detailed, put that person on a team with someone who’s more product-focused and wants to speed up and get things done really quickly. That tension and the inevitable conflicts they’ll have are going to make the work better.
It’s also going to help them both grow. I worked with this one woman who was so slow at everything, and I like to go fast—”Let’s go, let’s get it done.” I can remember standing behind her at her desk, and putting my hands as if I wanted to strangle her. I was so frustrated. But it was good for me and, truthfully, we did really good work together. Managers have to think about personalities and styles and the strengths people bring to the work and then find ways to create those tensions that benefit the work and the people involved.
One time at my old startup, someone hung a picture of Taylor Swift on the wall. The next morning, her face was full of darts. Is this a workplace conflict?
Oh, man. Well, if the person who put up the poster adores Taylor Swift, they would find a dart in Taylor Swift’s eye to be offensive and upsetting. The person throwing the dart thinks, “Oh, we all hate Taylor Swift,” right? Like there’s nothing to do with a Taylor Swift poster except throw a dart in her eye.
Perceptions of conflict differ because we assume everyone sees the world from our perspective. When our perspectives naturally align, things go smoothly. When we disagree about Taylor Swift or the goal of the project or about what the budget should be or about how emails should be worded, that’s when this stuff comes up.
Perceptions of conflict differ because we assume everyone sees the world from our perspective. When our perspectives naturally align, things go smoothly.
What’s more useful to create the most self-aware organization possible—management consultant or shrink?
That’s a good question. Not least because I was a management consultant and I’m married to a therapist.
I would probably go with the shrink. The more I study these topics, the more I realize that it is so much about psychological exploration. Wouldn’t it be great to just say, “Hey, boss, here’s a check for six months of therapy! Come back and let’s have this discussion then.” The ability to understand why we take certain actions, why we speak to people in certain ways, why we care about things, what values we hold dear—is invaluable when it comes to navigating organizational and interpersonal dynamics. If we could get everyone weekly therapy, I think many organizations would be much happier places.
If you could choose a conflict partner, would it be a clear-and-present psychopath, or would it be more of a flailing baby—a conflict newbie?
I would take the flailing baby any day. The problem with the psychopath is that they usually are clear about what they want—and it’s often power. Dealing with someone for whom power is their primary goal is incredibly difficult, no matter how much training you’ve had around how to handle conflicts. Sometimes you have to understand when addressing a conflict with someone is just not productive.
And if you don’t have a choice but to deal with the manipulative psychopath? Say, if that person is your boss? Well, a person like that is likely narcissistic, incapable of empathy. Quite simply, you need to move on. That may mean leaving the job, that may mean finding a way not to work with this person.
Totally different with the flailing baby—I would take conflict with that person any day of the week. If you have self-awareness and emotional self-control, it’s often rewarding to help someone realize why they’re behaving the way they are. You can ask questions that help someone discover why it is they’re freaking out, what is it that they actually care about, what is it that they want. You can ask those questions in a non-threatening way.
I’ve found that in dealing with the flailing baby, the best first response is compassion.
Compassion is a masterful approach with conflict newbies. When I’m consulting or coaching people, I often say, “We are all people with needs that aren’t getting fully met.” Remember that the person who sent you that nasty email and CC’d your boss is not a raging jerk. Or they may be a raging jerk—but they’re also a person with needs that aren’t being met.
If you can figure out what those needs are and figure out how to help that person meet their needs, it’s strategically helpful to solving this situation. If you can come from a place of compassion, you’re going to have the upper hand in solving the situation.
If someone feels you coming at them strong or fast, it puts them in attack mode. But if someone feels you trying to see things from their perspective, recognizing that they’re a human being, maybe even recognizing that they’re freaking out and they don’t know why, they’re going to be much more collaborative in helping you work whatever it is you’re having the disagreement about.
There’s also less likely to be post-discussion shrapnel.
Yes. If the person can look back and say, “Well, that was pleasant. I didn’t get 100% of what I want, but that person was calm and gave me 22% of what I wanted and wasn’t a jerk to me,” it will have healthy longer-term effects. I like the phrase conversational shrapnel. The harder and more aggressive you go in, the more likely you’re going to create a battle in which there’s going to be damage that you’ll have to repair. Sometimes that’s appropriate. But there are studies of layoffs that show that as long as people feel the process is fair, they are more willing to live with the outcome. If people feel like there were fair criteria, and the reason for having to lay off people was clearly articulated, they feel far less upset about being laid off than if someone just comes in and dismisses them.
I like the phrase conversational shrapnel. The harder and more aggressive you go in, the more likely you’re going to create a battle in which there’s going to be damage that you’ll have to repair.
Walk me through a good approach for dealing with a slow-simmering, more passive-aggressive conflict. Say, something that’s starting to brew over email or Slack.
The very first thing to think about is, what are you contributing to the situation? It’s very easy to point fingers and think that person is passive-aggressive, never says what she wants, or that person has sent three emails that are terse and unkind. But have you acted threatening toward this person? Are they afraid that you’re going to take their job? Have you responded in kind to the unkind email?
This is where that compassion and generosity can be strategically helpful, because you can start a conversation with the person by saying, “You know what, I’ve realized that I am creating a tense situation by sending these curt emails and I just wanted to put that out there and say that I’m sorry.” Not expecting anything back, not expecting them to do anything. It opens the discussion in a non-threatening way to say, “Something’s going on here. I’m owning my part.” Ideally, that person then says, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing something, too.” But even if that person says, “Yeah, your emails have been horrible. I find it unpleasant to deal with you,” the conversation has at least begun.
The problem with the simmering, oftentimes passive-aggressive people is that they are intense conflict avoiders who don’t know how to get their emotional needs met. So they do it by lashing out or by making indirect comments. You have to make a safe space for them to be able to ask for what they need. That can take a lot of time, and you have to be patient for that person to come to the table.
What about a more extreme, longer-term passive-aggressive situation?
That’s where you need to enlist help. It may be from a boss, but not necessarily. Passive-aggressive people generally do not act passive-aggressive in every situation. So, it might be that there’s another co-worker who works well with this person and you can get some advice. Sometimes you have to bring it to the group, “We all see this behavior, we don’t like it, let’s fix it.”
You can usually bring that up in a group situation, by saying something like, “Sometimes things aren’t getting done after the meeting. What can we do?” If you’re the team leader, you can say, “Let’s discuss now what we should do if we’re not able to make our deadlines, if we’re not able to follow through on our promises.” It sometimes works to apply a bit of indirect peer pressure and create peer accountability.
By bringing the group in, does it introduce the fear of something more catastrophic, like job loss, to trigger a different track of conduct?
That’s right. That’s not the first step—this is for the recurrent passive-aggressive person who hasn’t responded to your compassion or your overtures to have an open discussion. Sometimes those people just don’t realize how they’re seen. If you can raise their awareness of how they’re being seen by the group, and that it’s not just one person but multiple people who notice their behavior, they might see their status on the team is threatened, or their job is in trouble, or a performance improvement plan could be on the horizon and change their behavior.
How about a powder-keg conflict? Everything is calm and then suddenly, ka-boom.
I spoke once to an Italian woman who was describing her office in Milan. She mentioned it was common for people to just start screaming at each other. I said, “Does it make you uncomfortable?” She said, “No, we’re Italian.” So it really depends on your office. That said, no one ever deserves to be yelled at if they do not want to be yelled at. If you are getting yelled at, it is perfectly OK to get up and walk away.
It’s also often the best thing to do. Trying to negotiate or discuss something with someone who is yelling and is most likely in what Dan Goleman calls amygdala hijack—you’re not going to get anywhere, right? Their brain has been taken over by tiny stress aliens that are making them crazy. That’s not the scientific definition but there’s little chance that someone who is yelling at you is going to be able to have a rational conversation.
When someone’s screaming at you because you missed your numbers or you didn’t hand in something on time or you called their idea stupid—you’re not going to get anywhere negotiating with that person. They’re essentially having a tantrum and you have to let the emotion work itself out and then find a quiet, more reasonable time to have the discussion. You can’t ever negotiate with a tantrum.
Can you hold a grudge? Some people love a good grudge better than Christmas.
No! You have to forgive people. I’ve been yelled at by bosses who I had to then continue to work with. If I looked at that person every day and thought, “You yelled at me, and that hurt,” I was not doing myself a service. Acknowledge that it happened, and it wasn’t good, but it’s done. And move on.
We also have this intense need to decide whether a behavior is right or wrong, and we have to let go of that. There’s certainly right and wrong in the world, but if you’re going to get in a knockdown fight with someone about whether something is right or wrong, you have to go back and consider the goal. If it’s to prove that person is wrong, you’ve got an uphill battle.
Are there times when leaving is the right conflict-resolution strategy?
I call that “exit the relationship.” I’m careful about recommending it, as I’m sensitive about people’s financial situation, or the uncertainty of their other options. But sometimes that is the answer. I’ve had people describe really obnoxious, horrible work situations and I’m just thinking, “It’s time for you to leave.” Or it’s time to just give up caring, which is emotionally leaving.
It’s the difference between a terminal illness that lasts 18 months and a fatal car crash.
Absolutely. Also, who wants to go to work every day not caring about the people or the work? It’s just not fun. So if you’ve gotten to a point where you need to disengage, which is definitely necessary sometimes, set a time limit for how long you can do that before you’ll leave. Because as you said, it’ll just be a slow death.
That’s one of the core pieces of advice I give to people I mentor. In a difficult work situation, first think, “What am I getting out of this?” If you don’t know, then set explicit goals for what you want to get from that role and from the people around you, and then set an expiration date—”I can do this for one year.” But if you’re not getting anything out of it, leave as soon as possible.
I love the concept of an expiration date. If things are not better, at what point does the milk go sour, and it’s time to move on?
I love the concept of an expiration date. If things are not better, at what point does the milk go sour, and it’s time to move on?
Is there a way to teach people to head conflict off at the pass, to make it so that conflict never happens?
I would argue that you don’t ever want to prevent it. Usually, conflict is happening for a very good reason. So if you and I disagree about what the purpose of this interview is, that’s a good conflict to have, right? Because when it comes out and if it’s not what I thought or it’s not what you thought, we’re going to have a much worse situation. So better for us to have that conflict now, sort that out in a healthy, productive way, and then move forward.
I’ve been in organizations where they don’t have conflict. It’s very nice, everyone describes the people as nice, but typically they’re not as productive as they could be, they’re not getting a lot done. And usually people feel like they’re walking on eggshells, because conflict isn’t allowed. If I can’t disagree with someone, it’s bad for the work—it’s that simple.