Healing Conflict in the Workplace

This photo resurfaced on my Facebook page (thanks to the “remember when” feature) and hit me in a completely different way than it did when I first took it. The reason, I suppose, was that I was preparing to sit with a couple of my many leaders who have committed to creating a workplace culture that meets conflict head-on. Even if puts themselves at great discomfort.

The reflection of the tree off the pond reminded me of what it’s like to stare conflict in the face. Until we stop and take the time to look at a problem deeply, in the presence of one who holds it with us (or maybe against us), we can’t really understand what it truly is or what to do about it.

I really like that when I took the picture I did not capture the actual tree… only its twisted, mysterious reflection. Let’s call it the story of the tree.

You see, when two people set aside significant time and distraction to talk directly about the problem(s) that have upset them and hurt the working relationship, they sit down with the “story of the tree”—in other words, the reflected image of their deep disappointment and sadness.

The conflict conversation will often begin in much the same way as the image in the photo. A person who is truly committed to the process will begin to tell you their “story of the tree.” It’s the best we can do. The person across from us will likely see a much different image and hold their own “story of the tree.”

Here is how I’m using the concept of “story”: If you were to ask me to tell you about myself, the best I could do is tell you the story I hold about who I am. If an all-knowing being sat with us, it would judge that my story is a blend of fact and fiction. This is nothing to feel bad about. None of us fully escape our story. The only way this can hurt is if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that we are telling a story. A beautiful, agonizing, important story.

The deepest and most debilitating conflicts in the workplace (or anywhere, for that matter) grow from the fear that the other’s story of us is incomplete, unfair, unkind, or just plain wrong. Being in conflict with another over what to do, why to do it, or even how to do it is much easier than being in conflict with how we are seen by the other.

The healing of the conflict happens when we trust another with our story and hold theirs (regardless of how heavy) until we see the “image”; our individual stories give way to a shared image of what the tree looks like. Once we see the shared “tree” that casts the image, we can feel released to move in partnership toward mutual satisfaction.



As an organizational psychologist, Dan McArthur has worked with owners and top executives in a variety of organizations for 30 years. He is at his best when the obstructions to growth and harmony are not readily observable. He has an amazing ability to quickly build trust with all key players and support them as they move toward better self-management, leadership, healthy team dynamics, and increased productivity.

copyright 2018 McArthur Executive Development