Jazz, Tension, Conflict And Resolution In The Workplace

Can conflict EVER be constructive? Isn’t it all about disagreement, frustration and lack of alignment? What good can come from that? True, conflict often is these things, but there are ways to manage the emotions that go with conflict. But before we get to the “how,” let’s look at “why” this is an important topic to address.

Conflict – constructive or otherwise – wastes money and time.  It also impacts employee morale and  a sense of team. One 2008 report found that companies spend an eye-popping 2.8 hours per employee, per week dealing with employee conflict. This effort adds up…to approximately $359 billion in paid hours. Another study says that managers and other supervisors spend up to 40 percent of their work time dealing with conflict, yet 1/5th of their employees would say that they do not do it well.

Unresolved conflict takes a terrible toll on results. So what is a leader to do?

“Negotiation is like jazz. It is improvisation on a theme. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.”

While former Ambassador, Assistant Secretary of State and head of the Peace Corps, Richard Holbrooke may not have been thinking of how employees and leaders work through their differences in the workplace when he said this, it is as applicable to conflict resolution as it is to negotiation. After all, isn’t negotiation just a form of conflict resolution?

ListenJazz musicians listen. They pay attention to a key change, a particularly stellar riff from the clarinetist and the way the bass changes up the rhythm. If they don’t, the music they make will not ultimately resolve. It will not come to a satisfying close.

No matter how hard it may seem, when you are in a conflict situation, the most important thing you need to do is to listen. And I am not talking about listening to yourself. You need to listen to the other person, intently and without judgment. Listen for what is said and what is not said. Ask lots of questions. Check your intuition. Seek to understand.

Fight or Flight?

For many people, conflict, like getting up on stage with a jazz trio for the first time, can set your fight or flight mechanism on high alert.  Your ability to be calm, objective and collaborative may “fly” out the window. Remember to breathe. Lower your voice without losing a confident tone. Listen to your gut. See what your intuition is telling you in the moment.


Jazz groups are nothing if not engaged – with one another, with the audience and with their instrument. This engagement is what creates magic. So when conflict comes up, rather than fleeing, engage.

Not unlike a great jazz trio, Fred Kofman and LeanIn.org outlined this process for engagement:

I – Express your values

WE – Relate to your counterpart in a positive way

IT – Achieve satisfactory alignment

Having a process such as the outline above will certainly help you focus in a more constructive (and less anxious) way. Additionally, try practicing calming and connecting behaviors like the ones listed below:

Breathe – okay, this is obvious, but when we are in fight or flight mode, we often hold our breath or take very shallow breaths. Breathe deeply and calmly.

Lower your voice – this may naturally happen because of your deep breathing. Check the volume and tone to make sure you are appropriately assertive.

Listen to your gut – our intuition can be very smart. Notice what you are feeling and sensing and respond accordingly.

Practice “yes, and – this classic improv foundational practice communicates that I’m with you, and here is a possibility. The very purpose of “yes, and” is to remove conflict from the situation.

Conflict can be scary and many of us avoid it. Try considering the “jazz”of conflict and negotiation while also embracing the tension, collaboration and resolution in the conversation to create the perfect jazz ensemble.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *