The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Healthy conflict is an important part of productive work relationships, but the moment that conflict morphs into something more insidious, issues ensue.

In the world of sport we often praise a win-at-all-costs approach to any challenge. When a prospective opponent faces us, we put up our fists, ready to defend our territory. Has this mentality permeated our approach to communication and interpersonal conflict as well? Is it possible that our aggressive, win-at-all-costs mentality has squeezed out space for peaceful conflict resolution between sport colleagues?

Certainly, I’ve sat in some sport boardrooms and administrative offices where I’ve watched and heard individuals face off, and I’ve felt a tension that is palpable. Parties entrench themselves deeply in oppositional positions, and these divisions grow over time, creating a chasm that seems unbreachable.

And I’ve considered: what can dispel this unhealthy tension?

My conclusion is that turning conflict from aggressive confrontation to healthy communication is crucial. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Start by checking in with yourself. Ask yourself how you have contributed to the conflict. What part have you played (even if it’s a small part)? Own it, which is not a demonstration of weakness, but rather a display of humility and maturity that can expedite a successful resolution.
  • Remain calm. Take a deep breath or time out. The enemy of good dialogue is out-of-control emotion. In these moments, you lose your ability to accurately read and respond to verbal and nonverbal communication. When you’re in control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs without intimidating others or worsening the situation.
  • Apologize. Consider how you can authentically apologize for your part in the conflict. To be clear, this is not intended for situations where you’ve been victimized. However, in other circumstances, genuine regret can open up the door to real conversation. At times the other party may be unwilling or not ready to concede anything, but the vulnerability of admitting your own culpability may soften them. Say more than sorry – be  specific and name what you’ll change.
  • Focus on the present. Avoid dredging up examples from the past. It is likely that two battling parties recall past situations differently. Memory is fickle and is often coloured by our emotions. Rather than argue over what happened, articulate your issue with the other party’s specific behaviour.
  • Communicate in-person as much as possible. Choose face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction when conflict exists, rather than risk engaging in contentious email or text wars, which can lead to greater misunderstanding.
  • Listen to the other perspective. Be proactive in creating space for others to share their views and opinions. Listen carefully, ask clarifying questions, and avoid interruptions.
  • Evaluate your body language. Pay attention to your facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language to ensure you appear receptive and open to the others’ perspectives.
  • Always aim to discover the way forward. Continuously look for points of agreement. Agree on ways you’ll interact and manage conflict in the future

Let’s commit to ensuring that conflict is less about aggressive confrontation and more about healthy communication. When we face disagreements, engaging in healthy dialogue takes more courage than shouting and blocking your ears. Now that’s a value worth praising!


This blog was originally published February 27, 2019.


About the Author

Claire Carver-Dias’s professional life has straddled the worlds of sport, business and academia. A PhD specializing in English and Communications, Claire has also won medals in synchronized swimming at the Olympic, Pan American, World Championship and Commonwealth Games. She has also served as a sport board member, volunteer, and administrator. In 2004, she launched Clearday, her own communications coaching consultancy, combining her appreciation of effective coaching techniques, and keen understanding of teaming, goal-setting, performance management, and communications, to help corporate leaders achieve their full potential.