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Article 17 min read

Tackling difficult topics head on: A conversation with Amy Gallo

By Kate Crane

Last updated September 21, 2021

The author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo has never shied away from a fight. In fact, you’re not likely to encounter a bigger fan of conflict, which to Gallo is central to authentic connections and necessary for growth. Gallo recently spoke with us about how (not if) technology has changed conflict, the workplace in the wake of #MeToo, and why we’d all benefit from getting more comfortable with talking about what makes us uncomfortable.

Are there core types of conflict in customer service? How do these differ from other types of conflict, and are the stakes higher?

If you’re a rep, handling customer conflict differs from how you might handle, say, a conflict with a co-worker. Partly because your hands are tied, in that your job, most of the time, is to get a resolution for the customer. You’re dealing with someone who is maybe frustrated or has different needs or wants than you, and your goal here is to make them happy or to keep them as a customer. So the stakes are a bit higher, I would say, than in a conflict with a co-worker.

Are there different types? Absolutely, and those are actually similar to the types that you would have with a co-worker. I talk about four types of conflict in my book. First, there’s task conflict. Do you disagree over the goal? The customer wants one thing and you want another. Then, there’s process conflict. You may both agree on the goal but you disagree on how to get there. There’s also status conflict, which is very common in workplace disagreements. Who gets to make the call here? Who has the power? And lastly, there are relationship conflicts—this is where someone has disrespected someone else.

Sometimes customers are just really upset because they feel powerless or they think you’re powerless to help them.

There are going to be differences of perspective—sometimes one person thinks you’re having a conflict over one thing, and someone else thinks you’re having a conflict over something completely different. Or, one person is like, “Wow, this is an intense fight,” and someone else is like, “This is a really useful conversation.”

You can have very different perspectives: That’s one of the things that you have to keep in mind from the start, that the other person does not necessarily see the conversation or the discussion or the conflict the same way you do.

[Related read: Amy Gallo loves a good fight. A Q&A with the woman who wrote the book on conflict.]

How can you begin to move forward?

In order to start resolving conflict, you have to get yourselves on the same page. That doesn’t mean you force the customer to see things exactly the way you do, but you have to pave the way for agreement by showing you can agree on minor things. It might be like, “I can see that you’re unhappy about X. Can we agree that if we resolve X, that we’d be in a better position?”

You’re agreeing over what the type of conflict is or what the goal of the conflict is. That shows, “Hey, look, we are on the same page.” Or “We’re on the same side of the table, rather than people who are at odds.”

“That doesn’t mean you force the customer to see things exactly the way you do, but you have to pave the way for agreement by showing you can agree on minor things.” – Amy Gallo

Does technology—like Twitter, chat, and other channels for customer service—influence conflict?

I haven’t seen research on this, but my impression is that tech has changed conflict. Not that these newer service channels have increased or decreased it, but rather that they’ve changed the way we handle conflict on both sides.

Having a conversation over instant message or just exchanging emails or even texts does a couple things. One, it removes any nuance that you might be able to convey with your voice or certainly with your face. Now, that’s typically a negative thing, especially when we talk about conflict with people in your family or office. You want all of those cues, as they’re incredibly helpful information.

That’s also true if you’re dealing with a customer who’s really upset. It’s helpful to understand the nuances of what they’re saying and for you to be able to convey the nuances of how you want to help them solve their problem. Those modalities or methods can mean that conflict does not get resolved as quickly as possible, and sometimes they deepen the conflict when you don’t want them to.

On the other hand, when you’re dealing with someone who you don’t know over text or instant message, sometimes you give them the benefit of the doubt. They might actually say something—and this is true I think, especially for service reps—that’s missing important cues like eye rolling or tension in a voice, or a raised voice, and that can be good. Then the rep isn’t having their own emotional reaction. They can continue to stay calm, reiterate their perspective, and ask exactly what it is the customer is trying to solve.

[Related read: 4 components of customer anger, and how to react accordingly]

If you’re communicating over text with a customer who already sees you as a robot out to get them on behalf of the company, looking to steal your money, those conversations over texts and email can be much more intense. It might encourage the customer to behave more “badly”—in quotes because they’re not having the actual empathy that you’re an actual person. That can make it complicated, as well.

Conflict experts, including myself, often recommend picking up the phone or trying to see the person face-to-face. Not only does it help you interpret the customer’s behavior, but it helps encourage the other person to see you as a human being.

Do customers or businesses have more to lose in difficult conversations?

I recently had a negative interaction with a credit card company. It was so unpleasant that I canceled the card—a rash decision, but I did it, and I felt it was the right thing to do at the moment.

Then I slowly realized the ordeal I created for myself. I had to stop all the auto-pays that were on that credit card and had to apply for a new card. Such a hassle.

At that point, I did question, “Was this really worth it?” Customer reps often think they have a lot to lose because they don’t want to lose a customer—and they’re often rewarded based on whether or not they do. I think we have to remember that both sides have a lot at stake.

[Related read: Why are my customers angry?]

The calculations aren’t always clear, so it’s not really about who has the most to lose. Can we at least stay in dialogue so that we will both get our interests met, at least some of them? Or can we stay in dialogue long enough to realize that no one is going to get their interests met, so it’s better to just end the relationship?

Can we at least stay in dialogue so that we will both get our interests met, at least some of them? Or can we stay in dialogue long enough to realize that no one is going to get their interests met, so it’s better to just end the relationship?

The customer often feels powerless—they know leaving may not have a huge effect on a company. But leaving is still a power the customer can exercise.

We think conflict between co-workers and conflict in customer service relationships is completely different because there’s a power differential. But, at the end of the day, a conversation where people aren’t getting their needs met or don’t see eye-to-eye is still a conversation where people aren’t getting their needs met or they don’t see eye-to-eye. The basic skills and approach to dealing with conflict work whether you’re dealing with your customer or your boss or your spouse or your friend. They’re skills that work in any environment.

I’d like to get your thoughts about #MeToo and the workplace. Do you know what the Shitty Media Men list is?

I do, yes.

It only worked for the women who were privileged enough to have access. This other world of women—whether they were junior, they were interns, they were Black, somehow not in the know—didn’t have a clue about this homemade safety device.

Then it gets out in the height of #MeToo and goes viral. This is also a time when doxing is popular—like, when antifascists leak white supremacists’ personal information onto the internet.

The benefit? Vastly more journalists suddenly had information about men who might cause them harm. The men on that list, including the one suing its creator, might argue some downsides. We all know HR is flawed, but then what’s the answer? Glassdoor? A speaker on the ‘Women at Work’ podcast estimated that 20% of women historically might have felt comfortable reporting harassment at work, and it’s more like 80% now. Is it really? How is all this changing right now?

I think that is the million-dollar question. Right after the MeToo hashtag became so big, the Shitty Media Men list became public. There was a real sense that women finally were going to be able to report their stories and they were going to be believed and that companies were going to take action. It was a hopeful moment.

In fact, Joan Williams, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law, and someone I consider an American treasure, advised in a Harvard Business Review piece about work after #MeToo to report harassment—it was a recommendation she says she might not have made so blatantly before #MeToo.

Now, one year later, especially in light of what happened with the recent Supreme Court Justice hearings, I’m questioning: Have things actually changed?

When I’m talking with people about what’s changed in their organizations in the wake of #MeToo, often the answer is “nothing.” Yes, sometimes people say there is greater awareness of the issue or there have been more trainings but I haven’t been hearing about the great shifts I think many of us hoped for a year ago.

HBR has published research over and over that says the best way to prevent sexual harassment is to hire and promote more women. But that doesn’t just happen in six months or a year. And many organizations don’t know how to do that.

Until we have more women in positions of power and we change the overall dynamic at work, I don’t think we’re going to see changes in leaps and bounds on this issue.

Did you watch the Kavanaugh hearings?

I did, I did.

I was texting with all my women and trans friends. But not a single guy friend said, “How are you doing? I’m wondering if that could have been upsetting for you.” Not one. There was no ill will, just a cluelessness. A friend visited that weekend… I said, “Every little decision I make, dozens of times a day, revolves around safety.” He had a deer-in-the-headlights look: “Oh, I never even thought of that.” That seems germane to what we’re talking about.

Someone recently told me that Michael Moore has been doing these events where he goes into rooms with both men and women and says, “Okay, men in the room, I want to talk to you first. How many decisions or actions do you take a day to prevent yourself from being sexually harassed?” There’s nervous laughter, and then he goes on to ask women. Similar to what you were explaining to your friend—to help develop the awareness of how many decisions women have to make on a daily basis just to feel safe. To be safe.

When I think about the idea that no men reached out to you after the Kavanaugh hearings, I want to believe that some wanted to but didn’t know what to say. And this is the part that relates to conflict: We don’t know how to have these conversations. All of this stuff happens, right? We see it in our Twitter feed, and we talk about it with our friends outside of work, and then we get in at work and we’re just so afraid to bring up these topics.

We’re so worried about offending colleagues or having our own perspective shot down. So we often decide that it’s just easier not to engage.

That’s the wrong decision. When something makes you uncomfortable, it should be a signal that you should engage in the conversation. If we all thought, Wow, this makes me really uncomfortable, that must mean I really need to talk about it—we would have much different workplaces and much more inclusive workplaces for women, for people of color, for anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight, white, cisgender male.

That doesn’t mean work needs to turn into a support group. Absolutely not. These are issues that are germane to the work. If women in your company don’t feel comfortable or safe going to work, you can’t expect that they’re going to produce great work.

When something makes you uncomfortable, it should be a signal that you should engage in the conversation. If we all thought, Wow, this makes me really uncomfortable, that must mean I really need to talk about it—we would have much different workplaces.

This isn’t about coddling people. This is about getting the work done and getting it done in a way that’s best for your company.

The term DARVO refers to a reaction by someone who’s done something wrong when the wrongdoing comes to light—deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. Kavanaugh DARVO’d like a champ on national television. It’s a clinical but pithy term for a simple fact: People get defensive. How do you deal with that?

If you came up to me and said, “You’re a racist, you sexually harassed me, you’re sexist,” I wish I would say, “Oh great, let’s talk about that.” But that probably wouldn’t be my initial reaction, right? I would start to go into this DARVO.

Of course, no one likes to be told they are these awful things. It’s not a comfortable thing to be told. It’s critical to have these conversations in a way that’s not about leveling accusations but rather about curiosity on both parts.

That’s what I have to remind myself. This happens to me when I get negative feedback from a colleague who thinks something I wrote or presented didn’t go as well as it should have. My first reaction is to deny, attack, make it their fault. This happened to me recently. I got an email from a colleague; it was actually forwarded. A forwarded email with 11 things that had gone wrong or could’ve been better on a highly visible project that I worked on.

My immediate reaction was: Well, she’s wrong, I can’t believe she did this, she’s a jerk, and actually it’s her fault that it went this way.

Then immediately, as soon as I felt that reaction happening I was like okay, turn away from the computer, take 10 deep breaths, and see how you feel about it. I still felt defensive, but at least I could see, actually she’s sort of right about number three, maybe she has a point on number five, and maybe I could get more information if I emailed her and validated this perspective, and then asked what else I could learn from her.

Truthfully, out of all 11 of those things, probably eight had really valid points that helped me the next time I had to do a similar project. The point being, how do you deal with DARVO in the workplace, especially around sexual harassment?

First of all, don’t start by accusing people of being racist or sexist. No one likes to be accused of being those things. Open up a conversation and focus, really focus on how you feel.

If the conversation, instead of, “You are racist or you are sexist,” is “Hey, that comment just made me really uncomfortable—I’m not exactly sure why, but can we talk about it?” That is a very different conversation than telling someone that you think they’re a pig.

I try to help other white people be less defensive about racism. Early on, in studying race, I gained a simple belief—the hard way, by making major gaffes and getting excoriated, which, to be clear, was a gift. That belief: If you are born white in America, you are racist.

I don’t think this is inflammatory in the slightest. Rather, it’s a straightforward starting point for creating meaningful change in yourself that allows a white person to go out in the world and work for meaningful change. The lifelong, never-ending commitment to undoing the racism you were socialized with is one facet of who you are as a professional, who you are as a human being.

Generally people don’t want to feel like they’re associated with the bad thing, the thing that needs to be eradicated. How can we make it less scary?

Yes, right. I think that’s the problem. Being racist is bad, right? Not being a racist is good. We all want to align with the good thing, especially white people.

But what if the “good thing” is being curious and self-aware? One of the most valuable questions—I think this is true in any sort of conflict or difficult conversation, whether it’s with a customer, friend or stranger—to ask yourself is: “What if I’m wrong?”

One of the most valuable questions to ask yourself is: What if I’m wrong?

If someone tells me all white people are racist and my reaction is, “Oh, I don’t think that’s true, I don’t feel like I’m racist.” The immediate next question should be, “What if I’m wrong?” That’s curiosity and empathy. Can I see the other person’s perspective? You don’t have to agree with it, you don’t have to endorse it, you don’t have to align with it, but you should hear it. Even if you could not care less about that other person, hearing it helps you in the conversation. If you can see their perspective, you can begin to find a resolution that includes what matters to them and to you. We’re aligned too much with perspectives or standpoints and not with emotions or tactics.

The question you just asked—“Well, what if I’m wrong?”—is a solid companion to one of my manager’s favorite statements: “Assume good intentions.”

It shifts you into a place where you can relate to the other person. If you are in a place of curiosity, then you’re still at the metaphorical table.

I’ve seen a lot of companies in the past few years adopting this as a value: assume good intentions. I find this very encouraging, especially because it fosters curiosity and can be a pathway to empathy.

Someone who experiences racism on a daily basis may speak about it in emotionally charged ways that can freak out a white person, who then dives for the stereotypes of, for example, the quote-unquote “angry Black woman,” “angry Black man.” And the tone policing starts. The tone policer will be like, “I’m totally open to your perspective, but why can’t you be kinder about it?” The other person is like, “I can’t walk into the Gap without security shadowing me. You have never had that experience. Yes, I’m going to raise my voice.”

Agreed, 100 percent, that promoting kindness and empathy is a wise way to go—and it gets twisted so fast, often alienating people who are marginalized.

I believe that these conversations need to be done with compassion, empathy, and kindness. But sometimes that’s not possible. It’s hard to be kind and compassionate when you’re constantly followed around the Gap and made to feel like a criminal, when you feel under daily attack.

These conversations will be angry. They will be messy. They may veer into unkindness or lack of compassion or even aggression. That is not a reason to shut them down. It is a reason to note that’s the direction it’s gone in. Okay, can we continue to have this conversation? The kind, compassionate thing is often to stay in the conversation when you feel desperately uncomfortable.

Taking someone’s anger and giving empathy back can be incredibly powerful. That does not mean you need to be a garbage can for someone’s anger, but if you can stay in that moment knowing that this is part of the dialogue, and possibly a way to get a sense of understanding and clarity for yourself, even though you’re experiencing something that doesn’t feel comfortable, if you can stay with it, that’s progress.

White people are so quick to say “But I’m not racist, but that’s not me.” Staying with the other person’s rage, not flinching from it, is possibly a better way to say “that’s not me”—and could be the most validating way to honor someone else’s life experience.

I think that’s exactly right. That’s true for sort of any difficult conversation. If you can stick with it, even though you’re really uncomfortable, you’re saying, “I’m so invested in this conversation that despite my discomfort, which I could easily fix by walking away or pretending this never happened, I’m going to stay.” That’s an investment in that person and in your relationship.

It’s hard to be uncomfortable and I see people all the time doing whatever they can to avoid discomfort. But the end result is that they’re not engaging in meaningful ways with their coworkers or their work. They’re sort of just gliding through.

I strongly believe that having difficult conversations is at the foundation of creating and maintaining diverse and inclusive organizations. Even leaders with the best intentions—those who are investing a lot in diversity and inclusion efforts—can completely undermine that work if they don’t equip people to deal with discomfort and have hard conversations.

Which could also go back to our discussion last year about whether or not consultants or therapists are more important for the health of a company.

Maybe we can evolve that question. Are therapists or consultants the answer, or is it that people just need more emotional intelligence skills? Self-awareness, emotional self-control, empathy—these are critical skills that unfortunately so few of us learn when we are young. I see this changing now. My daughter is learning a lot of these competencies at school, thankfully, but for people in my generation, we didn’t get these skills unless you went into therapy or sought out a book or article or realized one day, “This doesn’t feel good. I need a different way of being in the world.” Those essential skills—if we just taught people those, we’d all be better off.

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