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Lab Manager Academy: The Two Fundamental Agreements of Conflict

How to stop arguing and start communicating in the lab!

by Meryl Runion
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A matter of perspective

You know how easy it is to miss something that’s right in front of your face? Well, check this out:


What do you see? Did you read it as:

Opportunity no where?

Most people do. Or perhaps you read:

Opportunity now here!

If you did, you’re unusual.

What might your initial reaction indicate about how you regard conflict? More importantly, what does it indicate about how you navigate conflict?

Opportunity is everywhere

The second reading—opportunity now here— is both useful and true. Relationships and conversations in many labs often get uncomfortable, challenging, and even contentious just before the breakthrough. Often, areas of dissention, disagreement, and difference in your lab hold the greatest potential for discovery, innovation and improvement. What would you say if I told you the best way out of conflict is through it, and often the way through is actually easier and more comfortable than avoidance, once you have the principles of effective conflict management?

The tools and methods for managing conflict are many. The principles are few, boiling down to two fundamental agreements that move people through conflict: be authentic and show respect. Those agreements can be summarized in the simple formula, say what you mean and mean what you say, without being mean when you say it. A slightly more sophisticated version is:

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Keep forward-focused and customer-centered when you say it.

Saying what you mean and meaning what you say ensures authenticity. Not being mean while being forwardfocused and customer-centered ensures respect.

Be authentic in conflict: the first fundamental agreement

“Say what you mean” gives simple authenticity guidance—tell the truth about what you think, feel and want. It’s amazing what happens when people commit to that principle. It forces them to think through to their deepest and most mature meanings. People who are convinced they can’t speak the truth often find ways to say what they have to say that they wouldn’t have discovered had they let themselves hedge and fudge.

“Mean what you say” also gives simple accountability guidance—back your words up with action. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Protect the power of your words by being true to their explicit and implied meaning.

Respect people in conflict: the second fundamental agreement

For example, Toyota manufacturing uses the term “respect for people” as a guiding principle. Their definition of respect is different from what some of us might imagine. It doesn’t mean pander or coddle or be “nice”. It means honoring their people’s potential, their desire to excel, and their ability to learn and understand.

Focus forward in conflict

Forward focus means standing sideby- side and looking at the existing situation first-hand and creating a mutual vision of what a more desirable situation would be. The second step is to determine what steps can be taken to achieve a more desirable situation and what step should be taken first.

Customer-centerednes in conflict

Who is the customer in business conflict communication? There are two. Your listener is your unique customer. Use words your listener relates to. It doesn’t matter how authentic and true what you say is, if you speak in ways your listener/customer can’t hear.

Whomever your business serves is the shared customer. It’s very disrespectful, for example, for a patient to have to go for a second biopsy because your station lost a tissue sample. The shared customer needs to stay front and center in every conflict conversation.

Honor the two fundamental agreements and conflict will resolve

There are many tools and methods that support good conflict management but there are two principles that guide how you use them all. Be authentic and respect people and those tools and methods will help you discover opportunity everywhere in any conflict.