Getting Comfortable with Conflict

Most people try to avoid conflict when at all possible. It’s something we’re taught from a young age. 

Most people try to avoid conflict when at all possible. It’s something we’re taught from a young age. “Don’t say anything if you can’t say anything nice,” is a common refrain we tell our kids. But conflict – and even anger – can actually be exactly what we need to grow, change a situation, or see things differently. This is the message of Gabe Karp’s book, Don’t Get Mad at Penguins and Other Ways to Detox the Conflict in Your Life and Business.

Gabe Karp is no stranger to conflict. The son of a litigator, he became a litigator, too. His father was “pretty aggressive as a lawyer,” but “he was always comfortable in any situation.” In the ’60s, Karp says, his father was part of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, using his newly earned law degree to help people fighting for voting rights for Black people, despite threats against him. 

When Karp moved to working with startups, he often found himself as the resident problem-solver in the company. He realized he naturally gravitated toward conflict, but he was also motivated to find out how to resolve the issue, often bringing people together to help them figure out solutions. Karp’s ability to see conflict as an opportunity, rather than a drain on his time or something to put up with, has helped him cultivate tools for both addressing anger and resolving conflict. 


Anger is one of the negative drivers of conflict, and it’s often something we try to avoid or repel. “To me, anger is actually a good thing,” says Karp, because it brings up something that needs to be addressed. But, he warns, excessive anger can be toxic and inhibit clear thinking. When he was a litigator, Karp knew he had the advantage when an opposing witness or lawyer grew angry, because it clouded their thinking. 


Healthy vs. Toxic Conflict

Our problems with how we deal with conflict is rooted in our DNA. We are wired to go into flight or fight mode when faced with danger. When something angers us, it’s usually because we perceive it as dangerous, and even though we’re rarely in situations anymore where we need to engage in a physical fight to save our lives, our bodies react as if we are, revving up our adrenaline to either fight or flee. 

But, that doesn’t mean we need to avoid all conflict. We just need to acquire the ability to recognize the difference between healthy and toxic conflict and the tools to deal with both kinds. 

Toxic conflict “weighs people down.” It can distract your focus, make you sick, and infect families, relationships, and organizations. 

Healthy conflict, in contrast, can be an opportunity for growth. “If you think about any time in your life personally or professionally where you achieved something, it was in the midst of conflict, and probably successfully navigating conflict,” Karp says. “Conflict is the hallmark of progress, success and happiness when you deal with it well.” This is exactly why leaders should embrace conflict. 



The ability to step back and employ curiosity about what’s happening can be a useful tool in navigating conflict. When there is a problem in one of his workplaces, Karp seeks to know more and try to find the root of the issue. This is a characteristic he saw in his dad, who was always curious about understanding where people were coming from, whatever their situation. 

Approaching conflict from the standpoint of curiosity can help you better understand a situation. It can help give you that moment (or more) to pause and not react. While we may have an immediate response to a situation that leads to emotional reaction, Karp says that we can learn to control that reaction after the initial response. Often our reactions come from a mismatch between expectations and reality. “Between expectation and reality, there is suffering and conflict,” says Karp. Most of our anger and frustration comes from wanting or expecting something different from someone. 


The Shopping List Voice

One of the tools Karp advises people employ to help defuse anger in a conflict is the “shopping list voice.” When talking about some charged issue, make yourself use a neutral tone, the tone you might use when verbalizing a shopping list. This not only helps us keep our emotions in check, it can also help defuse the emotional reactions of others who may be getting heated. 

This neutral tone can also be used when giving feedback to an employee, to reduce the impact of the message. When employees make mistakes, instead of berating them, tell them what happened and perhaps give them directions if it’s appropriate. Karp recommends making sure you are not angry when you give feedback. You might need to take some time to cool off if you’re finding yourself revving up to yell or berate your employee. You might vent the anger by doing some physical activity. Then, practice giving the feedback in the shopping list voice. If you’re unable to do so, wait until you are. 

While you don’t want to be emotionally reactive when giving feedback, you also don’t want to simply let things go. “It’s ok to say something someone doesn’t like as long as it’s respectful,” Karp notes, adding that ultimately avoidance can be more harmful than helpful in the long run. While you might think it’s the nice thing to do to let things go, you are not helping someone else grow by holding back on feedback that can give them information and perspective. 


The Danger Traps and How To Address Them

Karp lists five different danger traps in his book. One of these is bully-like behavior. This is when someone behaves in such a way that the other person feels like he or she has no other choice but to do what they say. He cites an incident from the movie set of Kill Bill 2, when Quentin Tarantino, anxious about being over time and over budget, insisted Uma Thurman drive a car in a situation that she felt was dangerous. She did it, and ended up getting into an accident that left her with lasting injuries. 

“Bully-like behavior has the unintended consequence of shutting down communication, causing someone to retreat or do something they don’t really want to do,” says Karp. This type of behavior usually comes from anger or fear, or both. The best course of action in a case like this is to first remind yourself that your safety is non-negotiable. Then state your concerns dispassionately and ask to explore other options. 

Lying is another danger trap. Some lies might seem innocuous at first but then end up damaging the relationship over the long run. Karp gives the example of someone lying about something they like on a date to form a connection. Yet this can lead to more lies and eventually cause mistrust over time. 

Toxic judgment can also lead to unhealthy conflict. Bottom line, we all judge; it’s how we’re wired. We’re hard-wired to look at people who are different from us to evaluate if they are a threat. But again, that’s something we can keep in check, knowing that this perception is usually not accurate, and it’s made even worse today by stereotypes that proliferate on social media. 

In business, Karp says, judgment can hold us back, because it can keep us from working with the very people we might need to be working with. In the workplace, judgments about people based on a variety of factors can inhibit productivity, cooperation, and possible solutions. 


Leaders and Conflict

The best leaders, Karp says, are those who are open, honest, and direct. They embrace rathar than avoid conflict and don’t shy away from giving feedback, but they do not do so in anger. They should be open to hearing what people think and be humble, while also working with their strengths and delegating appropriately. A good leader, says Karp, cares less about being right and cares more about doing the right thing.”

You can learn more about Gabe Karp, his work,
and his book at his website,

The conversation with Gabe Karp continues on the Leading With Genuine Care podcast, where Karp and I discuss these topics more in depth, including how toxic judgment has had a lasting impact on our world and how conflict can be turned into something healthy and productive for people in all areas of their lives. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.