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CONFLICT 101: Hot, Cold, or Just Right?

By Mark Gerzon
Author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities, and President, Mediators Foundation

Originally appears in the Harvard Business Review series on negotiation:


As a leader, you’re going to face conflict. It’s just part of your job. But before you try to deal with the conflict, you first need to stop and ask yourself the following question:

Is the conflict hot or cold?

To help you answer this vital question, here are two definitions:

Hot conflict is when one or more parties are highly emotional and doing one or more of the following: speaking loudly or shouting; being physically aggressive, wild or threatening; using language that is incendiary; appearing out of control and potentially explosive.

Cold conflict is when one or more parties seem to be suppressing emotions, or actually appear “unemotional,” and are doing one or more of the following: muttering under their breath or pursing their lips; being physically withdrawn or controlled; turning away or otherwise deflecting contact; remaining silent or speaking in a tone that is passively aggressive; appearing shut down or somehow frozen.

Neither of these types of conflict are constructive. Conflicts that are warm that is, in the best temperature range for “cooking” conflict are far more likely to be productive.

So, if you’re dealing with cold conflict, you need skills to “warm it up.”  If you’re dealing with hot conflict, you need skills to “cool it down.”

Conflict resolution, like cooking, works best at the optimal temperature. If too hot, your conflict may explode, “burning” your deal or causing your relationship to “flame out” in anger or overt hostility. Too cold, your deal may be “frozen,” not moving forward at all, or the relationship may become “icy” with unexpressed emotions and withheld concerns. As a leader, you want to bring conflict into a temperature zone where it can become useful and productive.

In the twenty years that I’ve been dealing with conflict professionally, I’ve operated in both hot and cold settings. In my work with companies, educational institutions, and faith-based organizations in the U.S., I have generally found cold conflict. However, in my work with politicians both in the U.S. in conflict zones around the world as a UN mediator, I have often dealt with hot conflict. And I’ve learned firsthand that understanding this hot/cold distinction is a crucial first step before you start trying to act like a “mediator” or “conflict resolver” in any organization. Once you’ve made a definitive hot/cold diagnosis, you’ll need to understand what some of the dynamics behind each situation might be:

If the conflict is hot:

You don’t want to bring participants in a hot conflict together in the same room without settings ground rules that are strong enough to contain the potentially explosive energy. For example, if working with rival gangs with a history of violence, everyone should be checked for weapons before entering the meeting room; in a typical business conflict, that step is unnecessary and would actually be insulting.

Practical skill for cooling conflict: COUNCIL. Seated in a circle, have each person speak in turn with strict limits (e.g. 3 minutes each). Pick a question that everyone addresses that requires that they speak about themselves, and their own feelings. (For example, in working with Members of the House of Representatives, the question that opened the retreats that I designed was: “How does the way the House deals with its differences affect you and your family personally?”) The result is an opening round of conversation that avoids personal attacks, allows everyone to speak, and ideally deepens trust before entering more difficult territory.

However, if the conflict is cold:

You can usually go ahead and bring the participants or “stakeholders” in the conflict together, engaging them in constructive communication. That dialogue, if properly facilitated, should “warm up” the conflict enough so that it can begin to thaw out and start the process of transformation. But you will still need to be vigilant and prepared. Conflict is often “cold” precisely because so much feeling is being repressed. So you need to be skillful to know how to “warm it up” without the temperature unexpectedly skyrocketing.

Practical skill for warming conflict: DEBATE AND DIALOGUE. If a group is avoiding tackling a tough issue, frame the difference as a polarized debate. Form two (or, if necessary, more) teams and structure a debate. This will accentuate the differences and inspire the group to recognize the “conflict” that is under the surface. Then, after the differences have been exposed, you can switch to dialogue to enable stakeholders to delve deeper into multiple options that will often be more innovative than the two original polarized positions.

In both cases, the goal is not compromise. It is bridging across the divide and innovating new options or solutions. Bridging means creating stronger ties and deeper trust between the former antagonists. Innovating ““ which is distinct from compromise — means that some new resolution or possibility has emerged.

Conflict resolution isn’t something you learn overnight — it takes time, practice, and reflection. If you find yourself in the middle of a conflict and you haven’t yet developed the skills to address the conflict, consider bringing in a third party or a professional mediator to help. With that said, if you’re reading this in the middle of an intense, immediate conflict that requires urgent action, keep the following advice in mind:

  1. Make time your ally.  Don’t rush to act. Unless you’re in danger, take stock of your options. Otherwise you might say or do something you regret
  2. Determine your goal and focus on it. Don’t get distracted; stick to what matters.
  3. Avoid name-calling and finger-pointing.  Focus on the problem, not the people.
  4. Beware of self-righteousness. Keep an open mind; you may find that you can learn something of value.
  5. Listen to everything; respond selectively. You don’t have to address every point – just the ones that make a difference.
  6. Take stock before you take sides. Don’t speak — or take any other action — until you’ve really heard the other person out. Don’t leap to conclusions before you have a firm grasp of the situation at hand.
  7. Consider calling in a third party. Someone who is not involved in the conflict may be able to provide vital perspective for both parties.
  8. Let your adversary know you. Letting down your guard and letting the other person in may help them understand your point of view.
  9. Check the temperature gauge. If the conflict is still too hot, don’t try to resolve it right away. Agree to come back when things have cooled.
  10. Observe the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Be polite. Be compassionate. It may inspire your adversary to do the same.

Keep in mind that your ability to navigate conflict is one of the primary ways that you reveal your character as a leader. The best time to learn is when conflict is not too hot or too cold. By learning to control the temperature, you make it much more likely that you’ll be well positioned to deal creatively with the next conflict that’s inevitably coming your way.

Originally appears in the Harvard Business Review series on negotiation: