Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Let’s face it. Social and political tensions are high. In our modern world, conflict and societal trauma are inevitable aspects of life and leadership. So how can we handle these challenges with compassionate wisdom?

Leading Amid Conflict

Conflict is unavoidable. According to psychologist Kurt Lewin, the definition of conflict centers on the clash of goals. When one person’s (or group’s) pursuit of their aims is interrupted or interfered with by another, conflict happens. 

As a leader, it’s your job to navigate conflict with empathic awareness and decisive action.

Conflict can be deeply triggering, activating our threat detection and response system.

At the same time, conflict offers opportunities for growth and innovation, along with a chance to model courageous, compassionate action.

Responding to Conflict with Wisdom and Compassion:

Eight Principles for Leaders

1. Don’t Shy Away from Conflict

Conflict and tension are natural parts of growth and evolution, from individual cells to large organizations. Don’t be afraid to lean into the discomfort. Conflict can be a precursor to a newness just waiting to emerge.

2. Set a Positive, Empathetic Tone

The mood at the start of a conflict is key. Infusing it with positive emotions like humor, curiosity, and affection makes negative communication less harmful. And showing genuine empathy – communicating “I see you, I hear you” – de-escalates negativity and shows respect, even without agreement.

3. Stand in Your Integrity

Choosing courage over comfort, and practicing your values rather than just professing them, is key in conflict. It’s tempting to hide emotions or agree just to keep the peace. But that harms trust and respect. Compassionate conflict requires standing in your own truth, while still empathizing with others.

4. Set Clear Boundaries

Boundaries like saying no, stating what’s acceptable, and temporarily pausing hurtful conversations, are essential. A crucial boundary is resisting dehumanization – refusing to isolate or disrespect people based on aspects of their identity. Upholding this boundary maintains compassion.

5. Choose to Read People Generously

Assuming people are doing their best, even when we disagree with them, can open us to more empathy and curiosity. Acknowledging we don’t know their whole story helps soften judgment and find ways to help rather than just criticize.

6. Know What to Ask and Say

In difficult conversations, asking about shared goals, showing curiosity, admitting ignorance, and expressing gratitude can help ground the dialogue in respect. When speaking your truth, be humble but confident, own your perspective, and set clear boundaries. Pausing, naming common ground, and expressing grief (where appropriate) can also steer the conversation in a more constructive direction.

7. Understand how Your Personality Impacts Your Conflict Approach

Self-awareness about your personality traits, such as agreeableness, openness, positivity, and organization, can help you lead better through conflicts. Knowing where you score on the “Big Five” personality traits allows you to consciously adjust your tendencies during conflicts.

If you don’t know where you score on the “Big Five,” find one of the many free online assessments and take ten minutes to find out. Then, for instance, if you discover you’re naturally low on agreeableness, you can consciously work on curbing your inclination to be detached and cantankerous. You can practice communicating welcome and understanding instead. 

8. Understand how Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Conflict Approach

Our early attachment experiences shape our adult conflict styles. Secure attachment allows us to stay connected and emotionally regulated. Dismissive attachment leads to avoidance and detachment. Preoccupied attachment leads to anxiety and clinginess. Fearful attachment leads to drama and erratic behavior. Knowing your attachment style can help you consciously manage your responses during conflicts.

When tensions are high and you’re at the helm, remembering these eight principles can help greatly.

True, not all conflicts end well. But when we do our best to remain calm, connected, courageous, and caring, we walk away knowing we brought our very best to the situation.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.