By Marlene Chism, SmartBrief

No matter the technical or academic skills a leader possesses, there is an often-overlooked skill that’s essential: Conflict capacity.

Conflict capacity is the ability to tolerate conflict without getting triggered into unconscious reactions. A leader with low conflict capacity lacks the self-awareness to know when they have hit their emotional and mental limits, and as a result mismanage conflict and make poor decisions.

Many leaders I’ve worked with didn’t recognize the first signs of conflict and didn’t know when they were in too deep. As a result, they made significant mistakes that, while unintentional, caused a lot of lost time, lost productivity and legal expenses for the organization.

Just like expanding your physical health through aerobic capacity, strength or stamina, building conflict capacity requires conditioning, discipline and deliberate practice. You need to be able to withstand the storm instead of resorting to the coping mechanisms of avoiding, appeasing or aggression.

Here are four ways to start building more conflict capacity.

1. Reframe conflict

The first way we mismanage conflict is by the way we define conflict. Various dictionary definitions include a state of open fighting; a state of disagreement or disharmony between persons or ideas; a mental struggle; and a battle or war. No wonder most of us have such an aversion to conflict.

When you define conflict differently, you think about it differently. My working definition of conflict is “misalignment due to opposing drives, desires and demands.” This definition takes personality out of the equation, eliminates your assumptions about motive and makes conflict much more interesting.

The visual I often use is two arrows going in opposite directions. For example, if two business-unit managers argue over budget, it’s not because they are bad people; it’s because they have not yet found ways to align their opposing desires, drives and demands. Their arrows go in opposite directions until they have a conversation to increase understanding and decision-making.

2. Get curious

Every time you get defensive, remind yourself that defensiveness is a sign you need more information. It’s time to use curiosity as a tool for conflict management by asking good questions, like, “Walk me through your thinking,” or “I’m curious, how did you come to that decision?” Then you wait for the answer; you don’t wait to attack.

When you are genuinely curious, you ask good questions to try to get inside the head of the other person. You don’t assume you already know what they are going to say; after all, they haven’t said it yet. When you’re curious you don’t interrupt and demand to be heard, you use radical listening in order to make aligned decisions.

3. Expand your comfort zone

It’s difficult to change patterns, especially when working with high-conflict individuals. Sometimes you have to hold your tongue on the roof of your mouth to stop interrupting. You have to consciously slow down your pace in order to build tolerance. When every bone in your body wants to debate or prove a point, you build capacity by consciously deciding to pause and compose yourself.

One of my clients recently told me he waited to respond to a belligerent email. In the past he would have lashed out immediately. I told him, “If a hammer is the only tool you have, it makes sense to try a few other tools to expand your capabilities. Sometimes you need some WD 40, and sometimes you need a wrench. You can always grab the hammer as plan B, but it doesn’t always need to be plan A.”

When it comes to building conflict capacity, comfort is not a requirement. Building conflict capacity means giving up what has made you comfortable up to this point. The biggest barrier to building conflict capacity (outside of cultural influences) is the commitment to comfort.

4. Seek mentoring

Why is it that we seldom ask for help when we are in over our heads? An easier way is to set yourself up for success before the drama ensues. If you’re a front-line leader, seek mentoring. Ask your boss to speak with you on a scheduled basis to discuss your decision-making.

Be humble and make the case that you are looking out for the good of the organization. This is easy if you admire your boss, and more difficult if you don’t.

The very fact that you asked will elevate your boss’s awareness and will help you form a better relationship and understand things from their viewpoint.

If your boss is growth-oriented,  they will be happy you asked. This keeps the door open when you start to have problems. The good news is that you will never blindside your boss if they know what you’re up to.


Advancing leaders without building conflict capacity leads to organizational problems. Although no leader enjoys conflict, competent leaders understand that conflict is not the problem: Mismanagement is. Every conflict avoided is a conflict mismanaged. The top skill for today’s leader is building conflict capacity.


About LRPC’s Monday Morning Minute

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) Monday Morning Minute is crafted to provide decision-makers with important information about the economy, investments and corporate retirement plans in a format that allows a reader to consume the information in less than 60 seconds. As an independent, objective investment adviser, LRPC has access to many sources of research and shares the best and most relevant information with its readers each week.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to employer retirement plan sponsors. The firm specializes in sustainable investment strategies for retirement plans that incorporate Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) factors and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) elements. LRPC currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than a half billion dollars in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or or visit the firm’s website at Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, a plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.