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Unplugging Conflict in Three Little Words

Aug 17, 2023
By John Zeswitz

Categories: Leadership & Organizational Development

Unplugging Conflict in Three Little Words

In an old Joe Jackson song, there’s a line that asks, “How do you know that what you know is true?” This thought-provoking question applies to many areas of our lives.

We (and when I say “we,” I mean “I”) often don’t slow down enough to ask that question. As a result, we build narratives in our head and seek situations that affirm our perspective, without ever truly asking if what we “know” is true. Then, when we are presented with an opposing thought, emotions kick in. Intent is attributed. Voila – we have landed at DEFCON 4. Conflict.

In one of my recent conversations, a global pharmaceutical leader used a phrase three different times relating to these situations.  These three words resonated with me and are the same words used by workforce expert Daniel Pink to deescalate conflict and create a forward conversation as opposed to accusation:


These three simple words serve as a practical tool each of us can use to defuse a conversation that seems to be wobbling on the rails before it flies off completely.

These three simple words connote there is something missing. They also suggest the missing piece might lie within my own understanding. They present a posture of humility (pending your inflection, of course). They affirm the other’s dignity while acknowledging there is something more to discover. It’s not acquiescence. It’s not resignation. It’s merely identifying the truth. Something is amiss, and we need to figure it out to move forward – in work or relationship or life.

So, the next time you feel the temperature rising in a conversation, try deploying those three little words. Do your best to make sure what you know is true. Take a breath, dial down your volume two notches, and look the other person in the eye while saying, “help me understand…”

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