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Conflict in Coaching

In the coaching context, conflict arises over our ideas, our desires, our intentions, and our goals.


For those in leadership positions, and all coaches are in leadership positions, conflict management is a critical skill that will determine your effectiveness as a coach and leader.

Consistently poor handling of conflicts will erode trust, build dissension, and reduce commitment to mutual causes. In contrast, be acting fairly and consistently, you will build trust, build cohesion, and enhance commitment to organizational goals.

How you handle conflict will dictate HOW your culture evolves. Future conflicts will resolve themselves when people know what’s expected and they understand how conflicts will be handled. When you’re fair and consistent, people stop pushing boundaries. There’s nothing to be gained.

Conflict management is how culture is defined. Through conflict resolution, or lack thereof, cultural norms, behaviors, and expectations are established. It would serve the coach to make sure the culture is being defined in a way that serves to support organizational goals.

Conflict in coaching often arises between the following groups.

  • Swimmer and swimmer

  • Coach and coach

  • Swimmer and coach

  • Coach and parent

  • Swimmer and parent

While certain subtleties arise in each context, below are some thoughts about how to approach conflict in coaching, and in life.

Accept that no one likes conflict. You’re not special. Deal with it and act anyway. Whenever you get the feeling that wish you could just walk away or that you didn’t have to deal with an issue, THAT is the sign that you need to act, immediately.

Want to help, sincerely. If you approach conflict with the intent to help everyone involved, many conflicts will disappear magically. In contrast, looking for vengeance will most definitely make the situation worse.

Once you are aware of a conflict, address it as soon as possible. Avoiding the conflict in the hope that it will go away will not work. Ever. The sooner you address a conflict, the greater the likelihood that you will be able to manage the conflict on your terms. If you fail to do so, conflicts will spiral away from you and then you will have real problems, such as a finding a new job.

Clearly state your issue and intent. If you are bringing up the conflict, and as a leader you will be because no one else will be willing to, you must start by clearly your perspective. Lay out the issues as a starting point from which a conversation can ensue.

Listen. This alone can solve many conflicts. More often than not, conflict arises from miscommunication, not because of ulterior motives or evil conspiracies. If you listen, you can avoid making the situation worse, and in many cases pertinent information and perspective emerges when it is obvious that you are willing to listen.

Judge actions, not character. Take issue with what happened without judging the motivations or character of individuals involved. ‘Suzy missed practice for the 3rdtime this week’ is quite different from ‘Suzy is lazy and irresponsible’.

Remove emotion. If you are mad or hurt, wait until you’re back in control before addressing the situation. Otherwise, you may be unable to listen, or worse, you may say something you’ll regret.

Have all the information. Make sure you understand the situation as much as possible before specifically addressing it. If you know that you don’t have all of the information you need, state that, ask questions, and listen.

Know the stakes and think globally. If the conflict is or isn’t resolved, what’s going to happen? What are the short- and long-term consequences to the team and individuals involved? The more you can appreciate the big picture, the more direction you’ll have in navigating

Understand your leverage. In the event that you cannot move towards a mutually agreeable solution, what leverage do you have to ensure you can protect your culture and your team. As with any negotiation, the amount of leverage you have will dictate your approach to that negotiation.

Is this the hill you’re willing to die on? How far are you willing to push this issue? When the conflict is not moving toward a simple solution, you’ll have to decide how important this issue is to the future of the team. You may have to make some very hard decisions with very significant consequences that will result in further conflict. Is it worth it? In some cases, the answer will be yes. Only you can know. Think deeply to ensure the decision is the right one. In these cases, the wrong decision can be fatal.

Debrief. After any conflict, consider how YOUR behaviors contributed to the situation. In what ways were expectations unclear? How could communication have been improved? How can the situation, or any similar situation, be preemptively avoided in the future? Understand your role in the genesis of the conflict and do what it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Conflict is nuanced and complex. In many situations, there are not simple solutions. At the same time, how conflicts are navigated will ultimately determine the success of a coach and a team. When done well, team culture will be improved and conflict managers will become more respected as someone who can be trusted to work with all individuals fairly and honestly. Handled poorly, conflict will ultimately be the downfall of any coach or leader.

While it may not feel like it at the time, conflict is an incredible opportunity to enhance relationships, strengthen culture, build trust, and move everyone closer to their mutually established goals.

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