From Gut Punch to Virtual Hug: A New Take On Conflict Resolution

Darren Kanthal
9 min readDec 5, 2023

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Ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? It’s more commonly referred to as Frequency Illusion or Frequency Bias — or if you’re me — micro-themes.

Whatever you end up calling it (let’s go with micro-themes), it’s a cognitive bias, which takes place in the mind and affects the way we perceive the world around us.

Micro-themes is the idea that once you buy a red car, you end up seeing red cars everywhere.

They’d always been there — you just didn’t notice. But after buying the red car — you see ’em everywhere!

For me and these micro-themes, it usually happens that a client’s topic or challenge will come up, and then another client brings up the same thing, and then a discovery call surfaces that same topic yet again.

Recently, the issue of conflict resolution became a micro-theme that came up several times with clients — and friends…and then even with myself. Here’s the story.

Was it something I said…?

One of my most important business partners (I’ll call her Andrea) was put off by a comment I made on her work. In fact, she said my communication made her “feel bad.” I learned later that ‘feel bad’ was how she toned down her real feelings — in actual fact, she had rewritten her message to me several times as she allowed her emotions to settle down.

Ugh! Gut punch!

I had no intention of influencing her to feel that way. And yet, that’s exactly what I did. At first, as I often do — I judged Andrea. I thought — come on, Andrea, are you really surprised by my feedback? Are you feeling extra sensitive these days? Luckily, I didn’t act on that judgment.

Rather, I read her words multiple times and then apologized. The initial communication and feedback I had given her was short and curt, without providing much context or detail — of which she called me out on and asked for more info. She also expressed a sense of pride for her work — the same work I had commented on indicating my dislike.

How I Worked Through My Conflict Resolution

I think we’ve all been there — someone says something that crosses a line or a boundary, another person gets upset, and all of a sudden, we are involved in conflict!

Conflict resolution is one of the top 3 topics I work on with my clients regularly. Here’s how this conflict played out for me — and I hope you find some helpful tips, tricks, and tools when resolving your own.

Step 1 — Own It!

Ya know, as much as I wanted to judge Andrea for being sensitive — arguing with her at a time when she was hurt and felt bad would have gotten me absolutely nowhere. And fast! All too often, I find people argue with the person who’s been offended and hurt by minimizing their feelings and emotions as if somehow they’re unjustified.

A better approach is to think to yourself — who the hell are you (or who the hell am I) to suggest how someone else feels is unjustified?!?!

Now, let’s get one thing straight — we’re not talking about someone who is overly sensitive, unreasonable, or irrational. We are not debating the petty slights of the hyper-sensitive.
Maybe in the cases of the hyper-sensitive, there is an inkling of justification. But normally that’s not the case, and it wasn’t here.

Nope — I clearly touched a nerve.

After Andrea told me she felt bad, I apologized in writing using one of our common modes of communication. I told her I was sorry — and my intention was not to hurt her. I also tried to reassure her that she’s an integral and important member of my team — and our success!

Per her request, I also shone more light and provided details about what I didn’t like. Andrea responded kindly, thanked me for the note, and suggested we talk more about it during our next 1×1. Perfect!

I owned my actions and apologized for them. Period! Done and done! I clearly hurt someone I respect, and for that, I was truly apologetic.

Step 2 — Reflect on Your Actions

I’m not someone who generally loses sleep — so I’m not gonna say I lost sleep over this. However, I am certainly someone who reflects deeply when there is disharmony and contention in my life. This situation was no exception.

My brain was working — the seed was planted, and my brain was processing. I found myself staring into space and wondered what was at the heart of the matter. I played out conversations in my mind. I envisioned Andrea being hurt. I imagined myself as angry and annoyed by the situation.

I envisioned making her even more hurt. I envisioned what it would take to resolve the issue. I imagined many different scenarios — some ‘good’ and some ‘not so good’.

The seed was planted. And the reflection was the watering of that seed. That reflection led to great discoveries, ideas, and possible actions to resolve the situation.

Step 3 — Get Curious

Here’s where things got interesting to me. After reflecting, my mind naturally started to dissect and create puzzle pieces (if you will). There was my communication. There was the work Andrea produced. There were the overarching business results and ROI we’re trying to achieve. There are my expectations — and there are Andrea’s expectations.

As you can see, this problem is multi-faceted, not just a few words of “I don’t like this” and Andrea saying she didn’t “feel good” about my feedback.

My curiosity went deep — and this was very cool for me! I quickly started to realize that even though we talk regularly and are usually on the same page — for this initiative, we hadn’t had the depth of conversation and debate required to come to the fullest understanding of what we wanted to achieve.

Yes, on the surface, it was rather clear. But surface-level understanding doesn’t get to the heart of the matter nor go deep enough to avoid what unfolded in front of us.

The more curious I got, the more I realized I didn’t give her examples of what I wanted, we didn’t come up with a model of what was ‘good’ or ‘not so good,’ we hadn’t explained our various thoughts on quality of work, I hadn’t brought her along well enough on the ‘experts’ I was following and what guidance they were giving.

Rather, I asked her to do something, she did it, and then I said I didn’t like it. D’oh!

Step 4 — Take Decisive Actions

Andrea and I weren’t scheduled to speak for an entire week — and I couldn’t let this fester for that long. Nope — not a chance!

Without seeing her face to face, I took decisive action, recorded myself on Zoom, and sent her the recording.

My curiosity led me to uncover some very important things — that I then addressed in the video that went something like this:

  • I asked if anything was going on with her. Maybe she was working through something(s) that was causing her to be stressed, unhappy, or sensitive.
  • I also told her that I was, in fact, experiencing that myself.
  • When I’m stressed, I’m often short, curt, and impatient. In this case, for example, I offered no insight other than I didn’t like something.
  • I shared with her the thoughts that I uncovered during my curiosity phase — and suggested we remedy those gaps.
  • I asked her if I could write about this for my blog (she said Yes 😊).

After taking this decisive action, Andrea, too, shared a video with me. When I listened to her thoughts, I realized the way I’d been delivering feedback had been festering with her for a little while — and we’d clearly hit a tipping point.
Of course, I could have said, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?!?!” — but that rarely covers any ground to a peaceful resolution.

Rather, I heard her out and nodded, watching her video, knowing exactly what she was referencing. To her credit, she also acknowledged that she had created a story in her head that I ‘never’ give positive feedback — after which she challenged herself to see if that idea was actually true by looking back through our communications. She realized that that wasn’t the case, but that the most recent communications had been given more weight in her head.

All this is to say that taking decisive actions and leaning into the respect I have for Andrea opened the door for her to respond in kind — which she did!

Step 5 — Airing Of The Grievances

I’m happy to report that as of this writing, Andrea and I have met — we aired our grievances (bonus points if you catch the Seinfeld reference), expressed our mutual gratitude and respect for each other, and literally gave each other a virtual hug.

At the core of this conflict was misunderstanding, as is so often the case. I didn’t fully understand her process and how she went about producing the agreed-upon deliverables. During the conflict resolution process, I found out that there’s a village behind Andrea that I was completely unaware of! This helped me tremendously!

I also got the opportunity to openly share some of my preferences and models of what I especially like and set some ground rules moving forward. Well, let me be honest — Andrea suggested the ground rules, and they made perfect sense, so I agreed.

Conflict Is Uncomfortable, but Necessary

Many of the people I interact with (clients, friends, family, colleagues) believe that conflict is negative or bad — it’s undesirable, they want to avoid it, and often it’s too uncomfortable. The latter I can agree with — I don’t find conflict to be comfortable.

But uncomfortable or not, it’s 100% required! Had Andrea and I not engaged in this conflict, we would have continued to have unresolved issues that would continue to fester and boil up (just as they did) with an even greater possibility of resentment or anger. And who knows, they might even have ended our relationship.

By engaging in the conflict, our relationship is stronger. We have a more solid alignment, and even better, we have laid the groundwork for conflict resolution in the future. The next time Andrea “feels bad” about a comment I may make, she’s much more likely to mention it or make a joke about it (subtly reminding me about her preference) instead of letting it fester.

And I’m more likely to consider how I comment on the work, to ensure Andrea feels appreciated or has the information she needs. If we do get into the weeds again, we now have a shared memory of a time when we dealt with conflict, and came out stronger on the other side, helping us through whatever happens next.

If you are someone who avoids conflict or tip-toes around it, I challenge you to consider following the steps I’ve outlined here. Look for common ground and address the conflict (or, if you like, we can call it the disagreement, debate, disharmony, or even that bad feeling) head-on.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at your bravery and ability to come to stronger outcomes than you envision. And if you’re like me and conflict resolution becomes a micro-theme in your life, just go with it! Notice the red cars, embrace the uncomfortable, and know that you are building strength and resilience.

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Darren Kanthal

Darren is a values-driven leadership and career coach who supports mid-career leaders with transformative career action plans and candid coaching conversations.