Stir Up Some Conflict


I had six scheduled meetings yesterday in addition to the other impromptu phone calls and events that occurred during and in between those. I know that compared to some of the days you have, that’s not a lot. My meetings went well: We accomplished our goals and the responsible parties are already following through on their commitments. But effective meetings aren’t necessarily the norm. I’m sure many of you have experienced those meetings that are painful for a variety of reasons.

All of this reminded me of Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book Death By Meeting. In it, Lencioni presents a fable to illustrate the most common and problematic issues with business meetings. Fortunately, Lencioni also offers solutions. He uses the fable to teach five principles for effective meetings1:

  • Know the purpose of your meeting
  • Clarify what is at stake
  • Hook them from the outset
  • Set aside enough time
  • Provoke conflict

In general, I see most leaders do a good job with stating the purpose of the meeting and setting aside enough time. I rarely see leaders clarify what is at stake or hook people from the outset. Where most leaders outright fail, though, is provoking conflict.

People don’t generally like conflict, but the kind of conflict we need in our meetings is not fighting. The conflict we need in meetings is critical dialogue. We need discussion that looks at deep issues and explores the meaning from the perspective of multiple stakeholders.

How do we encourage conflict of this kind in meetings? Here are a few tips:

  • Ask questions: “When you say X, what do you mean by that?” and “Is that the truth?” and “What is the evidence supporting that?”
  • Watch body language: Look for shifts in facial expression and body positioning. These indicate a shift in attitude. Find out what changed.
  • Solicit ideas and feedback from disparate stakeholders: When a diverse stakeholder group is present in the meeting, get as many people involved as possible. When they are not present, make a plan to get their input (and invite them to the next meeting).
  • Force people to connect the issue to your organization’s values and mission: The stronger the connection, the more important the issue.

In your next meeting, provoke a little more conflict than usual. Be careful not to push people to the point of panic, but let them know you want meaningful, deep discussion that embraces different perspectives (i.e. conflict). Soon they will discover it is safe to deal with difficult issues and the real problems will begin to be addressed.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Karpati Gabor. Available at

1: Death By Meeting: A Leadership Fable…about Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Patrick Lencioni (Wiley, 2004)

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