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Tips for managing conflict

In this section  on teams we have repeatedly said that, to be effective, teams must have a way of dealing with conflict. Team leaders have a major part to play in showing how to handle conflict well. For example, they must be prepared to confront difficult issues assertively and respectfully as well as pursuing, where ever possible, win/win solutions to problems.

Conflict can emerge within teams as a result of differences on any of the four MBTI™ preference scales. However, significant conflict often occurs because thinkers and feelers have different definitions of conflict and different attitudes to it.

For example, thinkers will often say that conflict is the inevitable result of differences of opinion and that giving voice to the conflict can be “healthy, energising or cathartic”. Feelers, on the other hand, rarely take this view.  They tend to see all conflict as damaging as it threatens harmony. They believe that in the cut and thrust of differences of opinion people’s feelings may be hurt and irreparable damage may be done. Feelers often report that they can feel personally wounded and put down when others  express contradictory or negative views in a forceful way.

One effective solution to the problem (though bear in mind the author has a preference for thinking!) is to encourage people to bring up issues of concern to them, openly at team meetings, even if this means that harmony may be temporarily jeopardised and people’s feelings may be bruised. If this is not done,   conflict will fester below the surface and potentially cause greater problems. However,  in the interest of harmony and the protection of individual team members’ feelings, team members must learn to communicate their views, criticism, dissatisfaction or whatever as respectfully as possible.

Dealing with conflict assertively and respectfully is a major topic in its own right but there are two basic techniques which I believe are team builders if team members use them – i.  qualifying opinions and ii not labelling the other person.

i. Qualifying opinions

Many personality types, not just Ts but FJs as well, have a tendency to express their opinions as if they were hard facts.  For example, in a meeting team member A may suggest a course of action which is then emphatically dismissed by team member B because it “will never work”.  In making this statement B is basically saying that there is a right and wrong way to solve the problem and that they are right in saying A’s solution is wrong!

It is extremely common for people to express their views as if there was a “right” and a wrong answer and that they are “right”, of course. But very few things boil down to being “right” or “wrong.”  Two and two do indeed make four, but whether something will work or not depends on a whole host of factors including – how you define the problem, your definition of success, and the attitude and skills of the person trying to make it work.

Team atmosphere can quickly be undermined, by such forceful pronouncements of personal opinions. Team members who don’t like the cut and thrust of argument will just decide it is easier to keep quiet than be cut down by types who express their opinions forcefully. It can make a huge difference if team members stop expressing opinions as hard facts and start to qualify their opinions by saying, for example, “In my experience, I’ve found …”
“From my perspective …”
“I’m not saying I’m right but I believe …
In fact, any statement, which allows for diversity of views helps to encourage team working.

ii. Describe behaviour don’t give labels

Another common problem in teams is that when conflict comes out into the open and we disagree with someone or voice criticism of them we tend to resort to name calling of one kind of another. So we then tell the other that he/she is 'insensitive, unfeeling, selfish, lazy, cavalier, judgmental, arrogant, careless' and so on. In other words, we choose a label, which is usually unflattering and critical, to describe that person.

Human beings are, however, incredibly complex. As soon as I open my mouth and say to someone 'you are …'  I am on shaky ground. If I say 'you are such a generous person'  I am not taking account of the occasions when you haven’t been generous. If I say 'you are such a mean person' I am not taking account of the fact that you are generous from time to time. 

Just as there are very few occasions when we can claim to be 'right', there are few opportunities to describe people by a simple word. And yet that is what we tend to do most of the time.  Listen to your own or other people’s conversations and you’ll see just how often we label people in this way. If we communicate these labels to other people when we are in the midst of disagreeing or arguing with them, then the atmosphere will become even more sour.

Other words which people often use when they are angry with others  are  'always' and 'never'. So people are criticised for 'always doing this' or 'never doing that.'  And again the liberal use of these two words in arguments merely alienates the other person even more and heightens the conflict.

It is much more helpful if we learn to refrain from labelling and concentrate instead on describing what the person is actually doing that we don’t like. In other words, we need to restrict our comments to the precise aspects of behaviour we don’t like.  So at a meeting instead of saying 'You are always so arrogant and insensitive' it is much more helpful and precise to say 'I feel you are putting myself and others down when you make out that you are right and we are wrong. We value different things and I don’t think you take account of that.' 

When criticism is restricted to behaviour in this way and doesn’t degenerate into name calling, it is also easier to then move on to asking the person to change their behaviour. After all, there is no point in criticising people for the sake of it. The only real point in criticism is to ask the other person to change their behaviour in some way.

Teams which are strong and effective are teams where members know how to express themselves assertively and respectfully, even when giving criticism or airing grievances openly.


© Carol Craig

MBTI, Myers-Briggs, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are registered trademarks or trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust in the United States and other countries; OPP Ltd. has exclusive rights to these trademarks in the U.K.

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