Since I posted my recent series on managing conflict at work, readers have been writing and calling to ask — almost plaintively — how they can manage strong disagreements in ways that are both respectful and socially acceptable.

In some organizations, the fear of overt, explicit conflict — and the pain and disruption that it can engender — is even stronger than the fear of leaving existentially damaging problems unaddressed. You may have experienced some of those typical weekly marketing, ops, or management meetings in which only technical details are discussed as a way of protecting everyone’s flanks: “I won’t expose your enormous and deadly flaws, so please don’t expose mine. We’ll rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic instead.”

The Elephant in the Room

Conflict is all too often constrained: either by good manners and a natural reticence about seeing anyone bloodied, or by the risk of appearing either weak or attacking: “I don’t want to be mauled, and I don’t want to be a mauler, so how can I ever bring up the unmentionable truths that everyone knows are there, but which no one can bear to have out in the open?”

Hardly anyone seems to have the kishkes (that’s Yiddish for intestinal fortitude) to put these unmentionables on the table.

So the elephants in the meeting room go unnamed, and as they eat the stale donuts and drink the cold coffee, they grow to enormous size and no one sweeps up after them.

Confronting Yourself

If you’re not willing to put the truth on the table, how can you hope anyone else will pick it up?

Here are some of the big questions you can be thinking about (and commenting on, if you’re so moved) in the next few weeks as we look at how you can manage to confront people for a variety of purposes and in a variety of settings — and with compassion:

  • Are you locked in avoidant patterns, looking for a new opening?
  • Do you personally avoid telling what a colleague of mine calls the “brutal truth” because you’re afraid someone will tell it back to you – or because you can’t bear the thought of being brutal?
  • How can you confront someone respectfully when you think they’re wrong or that they need to change, or when you just want them (for once!) to see your point of view as you see it?

Confrontation is scary, and whistleblowers often get hurt. But once you’ve prepared yourself with effective techniques and language, you may find that you’re willing to try using your new broom on the elephant parade.