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Conflict Management – Trading Anger for Understanding

Anger often comes up when fighting for one’s way against those who disagree.  

One of the most critical skills for managing conflict is the ability to go beyond anger and allow the right degree of reason to moderate emotions in order to steer the mind towards greater understanding.  Greater understanding leads to more effective conflict management resulting in better decisions, healthier relationships and optimal solutions that seek to satisfy the needs of all parties.   

Conflict is a fact of life. People disagree about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how best to do it. In fact, if you are working in any kind of collaborative effort and there is no conflict, then something’s wrong.[1]

Conflict is a difference of opinion that prevents agreement. In projects we deal with complex concepts and complex relationships and the combination of the two makes for a fertile ground for conflict. Conflicts are normal and, if managed well, they can be quite useful.”[2]

In our context, a conflict is any issue that keeps people from coming to an agreement.  It might be called a dispute, disagreement, issue, problem, or any number of other things, depending on its complexity and the intensity of the differences among the people involved. We will stay within the bounds of organizations, projects and teams rather than to the far more complex realm of national and international political disputes. However, it should be noted that the same principles apply in any conflict, whether between lovers or international sworn enemies.

More an Art Than Science

Managing conflict is more of an art than a science.  It seeks to reach a resolution or the acknowledgement that no resolution is possible.  It requires balancing mindful awareness, emotions, intuition, rational thinking, empathy, and effective communications to creatively navigate the relationships among the parties to the issue.  An intention to act with compassion, to reach win-win resolutions, plus an attitude of mutual respect are important ingredients for effective conflict management.

Interpersonal relationships are at the heart of effective conflict management.  In case you haven’t noticed it, interpersonal relationships are complex.  To attempt to manage them only using reason and analytical thinking misses the point that emotions and intuition are very powerful forces, often working below the line between the conscious and unconscious.  Understanding the complexity leads to a more likely to be successful approach to achieving optimal resolutions.  Note that many, if not most, conflicts in organizations can be resolved to satisfy the needs of all the conflicting parties.[3]

Trading Anger for Understanding

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is the fifth habit of Stephen Covey’s  Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.   This habit implies that one is more likely to be successful in resolving conflicts if one avoids the knee jerk reaction to convince the other guy.  Instead, one turns attention to finding out what he or she is thinking and why he or she is thinking it. 

To understand requires stepping back, opening the mind and objectively “listening.” Not just listening with the ears but with all the senses.  

We as humans have a capacity to process cues, some obvious, like words and overt behaviors, and some more subtle, like body language, eye movements and tone.  To better understand where another person is coming from and why, cultivate that capacity and the mindfulness and concentration to enable objective observation.  Then, fold understanding into the decision making and conflict management process.  

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Anger, ranging from mild frustration to rage, is a common emotion when dealing with conflict.  

We want our way.  It’s the right way!  “These other people are obstructing it.  How dare they?  What’s wrong with them?  They are sooo stubborn!”  “Aarrgh!” 

Anger arises out of the fear that we won’t get what we want.  Fixation on the desire to have things just as we want them closes the rational mind.  

Anger is a powerful emotion; an energy being sensed in the body and mind.  Anger is both understandable and not to be suppressed.  However, left unchecked it blocks reason and leads to division, poor decisions, verbal abuse and, in the extreme, to physical violence.  It makes understanding more difficult, if not impossible. 

Anger breaks down the conflict management process.  It is more damaging to the one who is angry than to the subject of the anger, particularly when the cause of the anger is in the situation itself.  For example, anger at a system that throws up political and bureaucratic obstacles to getting projects done on time and within budget can damage individual and team morale.  

Anger channeled skillfully can fuel sharp thinking.  Use it as an alarm to signal over attachment to ‘the only way’.  Transform anger into crystal clarity and wisdom.  Use the energy of anger to seek understanding.


Understand several things about the players in the conflict, including yourself, to inform the way you engage in conflict.

What is their motivation?  What are their needs and wants?  What do they believe winning means?  Who are they trying to please by winning?  What do those external players (sponsors, executives, managers, clients) really want?  What expectations, biases, cultural norms, external constraints, values and models do they bring to the table?  What is their conflict style – Forcing, Avoiding, Collaborating or Compromising?   Are they more likely to be driven by their emotions or are they more inclined to be caught up in their analysis to the exclusion of emotions and intuition?  

When we understand others and ourselves, we recognize that we are not so different from our adversaries.  Compassion emerges to fuel mutual respect and a desire to reach win-win outcomes.  Though, without diminishing the desire to win with a result that can be acted upon to achieve objectives.  


Conflict is a fact of life. Managed well it is a critical factor in successfully achieving objectives, including the objective to make relationships as healthy as possible, both in the short and long terms.  

To manage it well go beyond biases and beyond insisting on “my way or the highway.” To do that, cultivate the ability to step back and understand the dynamics that are in play.  Avoid reactivity to maximize responsiveness.  Rely on intuition and analysis based on understanding.


[1] Pitagorsky, George, Managing Conflict in Projects, Project Management Institute, 2012 p. 1

[2] Pitagorsky, George, “Conflict Is Useful, Don’t Avoid It”,

[3] See The section on Diagramming the Conflict – Evaporating Clouds in Pitagorsky, George, Managing Conflict in Projects, Project Management Institute, 2012}

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.