Overcoming Conflicts in the Lab and Beyond


This website and others are filled with examples of the “soft skills” that aren’t taught in graduate school, but which are absolutely necessary for a job in industry. I’ve written about some of these in my blog, including communication and presentation skills, networking, negotiation, and teamwork skills. With some of these, you can get away with only a passing knowledge. Others are absolutely crucial to the furtherance of your career.

This month’s topic deals with one of the latter — the ability to resolve conflicts. This one is a soft skill so important that I urge you to work on it today, even if you are still in grad school or postdoctoral training. If you don’t, you could find yourself years later, caught on a career plateau, wondering why your progress in the company has come to a stop.

As one who has had his career sidelined as a result of an inability to overcome conflicts, I feel that I am uniquely qualified to discuss this month’s topic.

How An Inability to Resolve Conflicts Damaged My Early Career

It took me far too long to “mature” in my career. I spent about ten years in conflict after conflict, developing great friendships–and enemies–in each of my two employers. As I now look back on the effect of that early ignorance, I realize that it was because I generally felt that I was on the right side of whatever conflict was in hand.

This quote by novelist Margaret Halsey describes the root of my problem much more clearly than I could in a thousand-word essay: “Humility is not my forte, and whenever I dwell for any length of time on my shortcomings, they gradually begin to seem mild, harmless, rather engaging little things; not at all like the glaring defects in other people’s characters.”

Perhaps you know someone like this, or you also feel a natural sense of “rightness” when confronted by any person or situation on the other side of an issue. Well, if that’s the case, welcome to the club. And it’s a very large club!

There are a couple of ways to act when a potential conflict raises its ugly head. If you’re a “club” member, you’ll choose to argue your point, based upon your firm sense of being in the right. Another type of personality would completely avoid the conflict, either by acquiescing or by simply steering clear of the matter in the first place. None of these responses to conflict will really work for you in the long run.

As I’ve found in later years, the solution is to take the head-on approach to conflicts– to manage them, not to avoid them.

Conflict Management by the Emotional-Rational-Intuitive Approach

I recently picked up a new book by Dr. Gina Graham Scott, a writer and speaker who is often interviewed on this subject. It’s a very good introduction to conflict management; while some books go far into the heavy psychology behind conflicts, this one is quite approachable.

In “Disagreements, Disputes, and All-Out War,” Scott writes about what she calls the Emotional-Rational-Intuitive approach, a good way for a scientist to think about disputes. Very simply put, she believes that the first step should be getting rid of all the emotions behind the issue. Then, a rational process would be tapped, using reason to examine the choices available to manage the conflict. Finally, that rational thought process is supplemented with intuition based on what is known about the interests and needs of each person involved.

There’s enough elaboration on the E.R.I. approach to fill a book, and it does. Here are some of my thoughts about the three elements of conflict management and the points that resonated with me from Scott’s book.

Emotional Element (First Step)

It’s a lot easier to say “remove the emotion” than to actually pull it off. Conflicts are infused with emotion, and pulling it out of the intertwining elements of a dispute can be as difficult as removing a hairball from a cat. It’s a matter of timing. Sometimes you just have to wait, and the rational thinking process tells you that its better to just drop the resolution of the conflict until some time has passed and the emotional elements are more approachable.

When the other party lets loose with a long emotional rant, don’t be tempted to jump in immediately with your own side of the story. Allow the other party to “vent,” getting as much off their chest as they can before you step in; your respectful listening will go a long way to cooling off the situation. Just nod, show some occasional signs of non-committal understanding, or at least signal that you are getting the message. At the point that the kettle has blown off some steam, ask if it might be a better to discuss it later, or go directly into your own point of view at that point.

You might consider totally shocking the other party into a lower setting on their emotion meter by apologizing. Even if you don’t have anything that you’ve done wrong personally, the ability to apologize to a very upset person for the situation you find yourself in can be a great asset. It is calming in the way that nothing else can calm, and its effect is often immediate. The other party feels quite a bit less defensive, and the discussion can then proceed into your own point of view about the matter at hand.

More difficult is the situation where you are the one who has gone emotional. In this case, practice makes for a better response. Learn how it is that you feel before an outward expression of your anger and frustration; perhaps it is a tightening of the muscles in your jaw, or an overall feeling of rising tension. When this is the case, try your best to short-circuit the expression of your feelings that usually follows. Develop some calming self-talk that works for you, ask for some time out or go in another room and punch something. (Just remind yourself not to take it personally, and don’t bring your own emotions to the conflict discussion.)

Rational Element (Second Step)

Once the emotions of a hot issue have been defused, it is time to understand and assess the problem to find out what is behind the conflict. There’s always one issue on the table, and one or two other reasons that really need to be understood if a resolution can be managed. For example, in the case of an issue involving the ordering of author names in a publication, it’s clear that the first author spot is the issue at hand. But sometimes there can be behind-the-scenes reasons as well; perhaps one of those arguing for the first author position is more concerned about an ongoing issue of respect in the laboratory, and this paper is really just symptomatic of another problem entirely.

Rational decisions need to be made about how this conflict originated. Things to take into consideration include: The importance of the issue to you and to the other person; the relationship with the other person and the power balance between the two of you; weighing the costs and benefits of taking a certain action; and finally, how well a potential might actually address the real reasons for the conflict.

Intuitive Element (Third Step)

This is the step that may be the most difficult for some, because instead of concrete recommendations (“do this, and this will follow”) the intuitive process involves a much more subtle use of your creative abilities and instincts. After removing the emotions from a conflict, and then using your best reason and rational thought to investigate the roots of the problem, it comes time for you to decide on which course of action you should take.

This may involve the use of brainstorming and creative visualization (both are explained in great detail in Scott’s book). Scientists are certainly well-practiced at brainstorming, and its use here is just an extension of the way that you may think about the different directions available to you in exploring your question. Creative visualization, on the other hand, may not be as comfortable a territory. In one simple suggestion that anyone can relate to, “Disagreements, Disputes and All-Out War” suggests that you tap into what Scott calls the “inner expert.” This would be bringing to mind a parent, an important mentor or teacher from the past, and “asking” that person for advice. Then, listening to see just what your reflections of that person might suggest.

Once you have a clear awareness of the problem, sans emotions, look to your inner voice, your gut feelings or a sense of knowing as to which direction to go with a decision. Its surprising how correct decisions about conflicts can be when they are viewed this way.

Solving Conflicts in the Real World

The problem with writing about a subject like this one is that conflicts don’t always go “by the book.” That’s true of any situation where emotions are involved. Still, knowing more about the three elements of the conflict management process–and recalling them at the right time–can lead you on a path to self-discovery that you may find very valuable for your career development.

There isn’t a job category anywhere, in academia or industry, where this “soft” skill won’t be useful in moving you up the ladder!