Workplace Communication

Conflict Resolution Achieved: With Just Three Simple Questions

Conflict Resolution Achieved: With Just Three Simple Questions

This week’s blog post is a guest post about conflict resolution by Rob Pennington, Ph.D. Dr. Rob is an educational psychologist who specializes in helping executives improve team performance through a balance of authority and collaboration. He is also an organizational consulting, executive coach, speaker, and award-winning author. The insights and wisdom he shares represent a credibility born of extensive academic research and profound personal experience, including having been shot in the chest by an unknown assailant armed with a 38-caliber handgun, caring for his spouse who was challenged with multiple sclerosis until her passing in 2009, and juggling those experiences with being self employed. To learn more about Dr. Rob and his work, or for more information about the models he mentions below, go to


There are so many books and trainings on the topic of active listening one would think that by now everyone would have become an expert. Unfortunately, in the middle of most disagreements or arguments many people are hit by an emotional wave that causes them to forget any communication skills. It is actually important to have some very basic guidelines that may seem ridiculously simple. The simpler they are, the easier they are to remember and to practice.

Here is a 3 minute video with a simple analogy to keep in mind the next time you feel your emotional wave overflowing.


In the video you just watched, the glass represents you, and the water in the glass is your thoughts.  The second glass represents the other person, and the water in that glass represents his thoughts.  The empty glass is a space you create inside yourself to ‘hold’ their ideas, while you go through a process of helping the other person experience being understood.

The splashing water between the glasses shows you what an argument looks like. You are trying to get some of your thoughts into him, and he is trying to get some of his thoughts into you. A little exchange is actually happening, but generally it just makes a big mess. And usually no one is really listening.

As you saw in the video, if you just start pouring your water (ideas) into his glass, it just overflows all over the floor. He is too full of… his ideas. There literally is no room for yours. You need to help create some openness in him. Some people try to do this by punching a hole in the other person’s cup, puncturing his ego by quickly pointing out how wrong he is.

But if you attack the other person, he is not likely to want to listen to you.  He will probably become more defensive of the point of view you are trying to get him to let go of.  He may even go back to friends who agree with him to be reassured.  And then return to argue with you again because he knows you did not understand him.

And from his point of view, if he does not think you understand, then nothing you say has any relevance.

If you say something that is true, before the other person is ready to hear it, from their point of view they literally can not ‘see’ the truth as you do. They will decide it is not true and because of your impatience it could take them a lot longer to come around to being able to the truth. So take the time to make certain your understanding is accurate.

Be willing to apply the Golden Rule first. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, has a word is missing: “First”. Do unto others (first!) as you would have them do unto you. So if you want someone to be open to your ideas it would help if you were willing to be open to theirs – first!

save space in you for others' ideas

Take your thoughts and set them aside for a moment and create that empty space in you to hold their ideas. Your opinions will be there when you get back. Create some openness in yourself first. Open up some ‘empty space’ in yourself, and just as he might expect you to start arguing with him, instead, stop and say:

1. “I can tell this is really important to you. What is it you want me to know?”

Become a receptive force, drawing information out of the other person. Be the first to seek to understand. Repeat his words back without adding any of your own ‘water glass thoughts’, just to make sure your understanding is accurate and to make sure he experiences being understood. There is a difference between you having an accurate understanding and him experiencing being understood. People will tolerate a disagreement when they experience being understood. They will not tolerate not being understood.

2. And then ask, ” Is there anything else?”

What do you think is the likelihood that the other person has more thoughts that he has not yet shared? Pretty good. Remember to repeat his words just to make sure you are clear and he feels understood.

3. Finally ask, “Is that all?”

Pause, and give the other person time to think. You want to squeeze all the ‘water’ (thoughts) you can out, to create as much open space as possible for him to consider your ideas.

The simple truth is this: If you want to get people to become more open to your ideas or suggestions, first be open to considering theirs.

This is the simple principle of “seek first to understand.” Ending conflict with the 3 questions listed above are necessary in order to make certain your understanding is thorough and accurate. Together with the Five Levels of Communication©, and the Six Stages in Supportive Agreements, these three interlocking communication models enable you to assist others to communicate not only what they were aware of but also what they had not yet thought to say. You learn to hear what is said but also what is not said, not because people are hiding but because most people do not speak thoroughly. The goals is for the other person to know you have “got it!”, for them to feel completely understood – and ideally – have no idea what you think about it – yet. (That’s Stage 3).


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