Career Guide

Embrace conflict

‘Put the fish on the table.’

One of the fundamentals of secure base leadership is managing conflict – being able to “put the fish on the table”.

It’s an expression that means raising a difficult issue and openly dealing with important differences.

The analogy comes from a special moment in Sicily where I was observing fishermen with their fresh catches putting their fish on the table and cleaning them with laughter, camaraderie and “spirited dialogue”.

They engaged with each other and enjoyed the bloody, smelly, messy job of cleaning their fish.

At one point, they invited me to join them.

There I was early in the morning, standing at a table with an apron, cleaning those smelly fish while laughing and enjoying the bloody, smelly mess.

And the reward was the great fish dinner at the end of the day!

If every conflict were a fish and you leave it under the table, it starts to smell and becomes toxic.

This is what happens when a conflict (fish) is hidden and not openly dealt with.

If an issue is raised, we can work through the differences – which can sometimes be a bloody and messy process – to find a mutually beneficial outcome.

And to continue the analogy, have a wonderful “fish dinner”.

Do not be a hostage

Many leaders in conflict situations are hostages to their fears and other negative emotions, failing to see the benefits in resolving conflicts.

This is understandable as our brain is hardwired to avoid threats and potential danger.

Successful leaders are able to communicate a model that is counter-intuitive – to see conflict as positive and as an opportunity.

If we step towards conflict instead of stepping back, we can take it as a challenge, an issue to be solved, and ultimately an opportunity.

Steps towards conflict resolution

How can you resolve conflict?

1. Bond with the other party. Remember, it isn’t necessary to like someone to form a bond with him or her. We only need a common goal.

2. Separate the person from the problem.

3. Base the relationship on mutual respect and a genuine wish to help the other.

4. Avoid negative responses to attacks or intense emotions by seeking to understand the other person’s points.

5. Use the law of reciprocity and concession-making to build trust.

6. Help the other person feel empowered by offering choices.

7. Use dialogue to gain a deeper understanding, discover new information, and maintain bonding to explore creative solutions. Options, proposals, and concessions can lead to effective conflict resolution.

The mindset of the leader

Effective conflict management starts with the leader.

The key is to openly face an issue and negotiate a mutual gain.

By identifying conflicts early, you can resolve them before they escalate.

It is necessary to create an atmosphere of trust where people take the risk to speak up.

Conflicts are necessary and their resolution is the lifeblood of high-performing organisational cultures.

How, you might ask?

Disputes, disagreements and diverse points of view:

- create energy

- are a source of new ideas

- bring about change

- stimulate creativity

- help build strongly-bonded teams

The key is mindset – embrace conflict and we stretch ourselves and others to the highest levels of potential.


Let me conclude by asking you a few questions for reflection.

1. Do you like conflict – that is, do you enjoy solving conflicts?

2. Do you want to get along with everybody?

3. Do you think in terms of common goals and cooperation?

4. Can you see beyond the frustration, disappointment, negativity, rejection and pain to the benefit of the outcome?

- George Kohlrieser is a Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at International Institute for Management Development (IMD), a former hostage negotiator, and author of the award-winning bestseller, “Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others and Raise Performance”. His other book is “Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential through Secure Base Leadership”. Send us your thoughts on this topic of conflict resolution at

Kohlrieser is also a faculty trainer with Leaderonomics. To engage him for your organisational needs, email us at

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