Conflict Management: 4 Rules to Fighting Fair

What does it mean to fight fair? Fighting fair is managing conflict in a way that allows individuals to contribute their perspectives. Furthermore, fighting fair encourages participants to consider perspectives other than their own in the development of work products and decision making. But what does a team have to do or not do to fight fair?

I have a set of four conflict management ground rules for fighting fair. These are the same four ground rules I use in all my relationships. I have found that when I have challenges in managing conflict that it is usually because one or more of the rules is not being understood or embraced. Not to take a high tone here, but I think they are an honorable way to interact with people.

Ground Rule 1: Honesty

The first ground rule is to be honest. Being honest means being up front about what you know and do not know. Being honest means not presenting ideas or hypothesis as fact. It helps to have language to convey ideas that might not have as much supporting evidence as you would like. Just because we are being honest does not mean hunches, intuition, or out of the box thinking are off limits. Let people know if what is being presented is an opinion, a feeling, or a hunch. Figure out some ways for your team to communicate how much is known. If you are sure, then provide the reference or share the evidence. If something is being presented as fact, be ready to explain why you think it is a fact.

Being honest requires courage because there are times your ideas may conflict with others. You may be the lone person with a particular view but you may also have the most grounded view. Have the courage to speak up and also the courage to honestly admit when you are wrong.

The word honest shares origins with honor. Being honest also means honoring and not demeaning others. It means keeping confidences. It means not comparing your best with someone else’s worst.  It means being frank in acknowledging your weaknesses while not hiding your strengths.

Ground Rule 2: Eliminate Assumptions

The second ground rule is to not guess. Guessing is presenting supposition as observation or fact.  This may sound a lot like being honest and it is. Not guessing is another way of saying use critical thinking. This ground rule is intended to support decision-making. Another way to think of this is be careful how far you leap. Look at the evidence. If you have a hypothesis, explain the rationale. If you do want to make a leap, tell people it is a leap.

As leaders our positions may afford us a certain degree of latitude. Suggestions may be taken as direction from deputies. Some people may assume our positions bestow a measure of knowledge. We may have people defer to our judgment. Worse yet, we believe we have the best answers! As leaders we should promote scrutiny. If someone agrees with you, ask him or her why. Asking other people to explain why they support a position facilitates communication. Leaders may not be aware how long a shadow is cast by their title. The more confidence there is in a leader the more conscious the leader must be of their views being accepted because of their authority alone. People should be asking tough questions of their leaders and leaders need to be willing to admit when they don’t know. Not guessing is about what’s right, not who’s right.

Not guessing extends to not guessing what others might mean. When someone uses an acronym or term you don’t understand, make a note of it. If it is at the core of the discussion, stop the interaction and ask for a definition. If the definition does not seem essential to understanding, save it and ask later. Whenever possible, ask the person using the term for the definition. Other people may have different definitions. Communication is a shared understanding arrived at through dialog.

Not guessing, and making it clear to others the level of evidence or observations we have in the positions we present helps others know where to focus their thinking.  

Ground Rule 3: Focus on the issue at hand

The next rule of fighting fair is make the discussion about issues and not people. The issue is something that can be debated objectively. Establishing this practice is not easy because people may tend to associate issues with people. Therefore if there is an issue in Sales and I am the Sales manager I may see the discussion as a criticism of me. If I am being criticized I may get defensive about me and not get to the root cause.

As an example, instead of arguing that Fred is always late with his inventory report could it be that the issue is we do not have the information we need to make timely inventory replenishment decisions? The issue is the missing or late information. Targeting Fred can lead to a personal altercation. How often do personal altercations stay on topic? The objective is to address the issue. Going after Fred may lead to defensive behavior that hinders issue resolution. Having said this, it is possible an examination of the issue may reveal Fred’s failure to deliver against a key principal accountability is a root cause. Approaching this as an issue leaves the door open to other possibilities. Perhaps the resource management software is slow generating the report at the end of the day and that contributes to Fred being late. Let’s address the issue people!

Ground Rule 4: Keep debate outcome-centric

The final ground rule for fighting fair is to make the discussion about outcomes and not tasks. Any conflict should be clear on what the intended outcome is. If the outcome is not shared by all participants the debate may become somewhat disjointed. Ever get to a point in a debate that you wonder what you are talking about?

Senior leaders should be focusing on outcomes. They do not have to do the work; they just have to make sure it gets done. Do not get dragged into a discussion on how hard people are working to perform tasks. Let us acknowledge that everyone expends effort but the company succeeds by meeting its goals, not working hard on tasks. 

Avoid the rabbit hole of focusing on the steps required. Are your people capable? If they are capable, hand them the ball and let them run. They may not do it exactly like you would but did it get done? If there were mistakes, were they recognized and corrected? Did the employee learn? 

If the employee is not capable, do they need to be? Is this a one off, never going to do it again thing? If we need this capability what are you doing to develop it in your people.

Keeping the discussion focused on outcomes keeps participants at a level where value is created while staying out of the weeds.


In summary, there here are four basic rules to fighting fair:

  • Be honest. 
  • Don’t guess. 
  • Make it about issues, not people. 
  • Focus on outcomes, not tasks.  

So have at it! Strike up a vigorous debate. Bring on the conflict. But be sure to fight fair.


Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC