The Skill of Speaking Up: A Responsible Conflict Resolution Technique

Suppose you were at a meeting where one of your coworkers insults another? This is the stuff that breeds festering conflict in organizations.  What’s needed is a good conflict resolution technique.  Well-meaning people who are unfamiliar with conflict management may try one of these approaches:

  • Stay silent (after all, you are not involved)
  • Stay silent in the moment and talk to the offender privately later (this is consistent with the adage, “praise in public, criticize privately”)
  • Tell the offender in front of everyone that he’s completely out of line and explain why he is wrong
  • Change the topic so that the meeting can move on to more safe topics

If none of these options sounds satisfactory, then you’re right, there are other alternatives. We call it Speaking Up Responsibly.

Case example:  A staff meeting

Imagine a staff meeting in a sales organization.  Suzanne, the manager, is a White female. She is sitting at the head of the table surrounded by six of her direct reports.  One of them is Jim, a White male.  A second is Josh, also a White male. A third is Yolanda, a Latina who recently joined the staff. They are partly through the meeting agenda and Suzanne is about to introduce the next topic.

Suzanne: We’re now at the Training Tips part of our agenda. Our numbers are down this month even though the economy seems to be getting better. I’m eager to hear everyone’s best tips for what’s working for them this quarter. Let’s see how many ideas we can get on the table in the next 15 minutes.

Different people share their ideas for the next 10 minutes. Then, Yolanda offers her suggestion.

Yolanda: When meeting a new prospect, I have always found it helpful to put the focus on the prospect first, not on our product. I open with small talk and look around their office to find clues to ask about. If I see pictures of their family or an indication of a hobby, I always start there

Jim: I disagree completely. People want you to get to the point and not waste their time. All that small talk and personal stuff is so Hispanic.

Yolanda’s face looks stricken, as though she has been slapped. Josh sits there stunned. Did he really just hear Jim insult their new Latina coworker by telling her that her suggestion was “so Hispanic”???  He glances at Suzanne, the manager. She is looking down at her papers, seemingly oblivious as to what had just happened

How might Josh respond?

If he stays silent, he becomes collusive with Jim in insulting Yolanda. She has no way of knowing that she has his silent support. If no one else speaks up for her, she may end up feeling alienated because of her ethnicity.

If he stays silent at the meeting and then talks to Jim privately, he might help save Jim from public embarrassment, while allowing Yolanda’s hurt feelings to possibly ruin her further participation in the group.

If Josh tells Jim that he’s out of line, Yolanda would feel supported, but Jim could easily feel just as insulted and alienated as Yolanda. Jim may not have intended to be personally insulting to Yolanda and simply not realized that he was implying that there was something wrong with being Hispanic. The meeting would likely grow tense and possibly even unproductive.

If Josh changes the subject, he would implicitly signal that something inappropriate (to say the least) has happened, but Yolanda would still not know of his silent support.

The Skill of Speaking Up Responsibly

Josh is in a situation that calls for difficult feedback and conflict resolution. Fortunately, though, he can use the skill of Speaking Up Responsibly in the moment to reveal the elephant in the room, provide reassurance to Yolanda that she doesn’t have to endure insults in their team, and provide Jim with an opportunity to try and make amends should he choose. Speaking up may also pave the way for a new norm in the group that these type of insults are unacceptable.

The goals in speaking up responsibly are to

  • stop an oppressive behavior,
  • avoid confusing intent with impact, and
  • model the respectful behavior you wish the other person had enacted

Before describing a possible response by Josh, let’s first review the steps in Speaking Up Responsibly in the text box below:

Speaking up Responsibly

  • Describe what you are feeling without any blame attached. Avoid any analyses.  Rather, state what you are feeling since no one can argue with that.  ( “What just happened is upsetting to me”, “This doesn’t feel right to me”).
  • Describe any ambivalence you are feeling (e.g., “I am confused about what to do now” “On the one hand, I could claim this is none of my business.  On the other hand, I’m thinking it’s only right that I say something.”).
  • Wait for a response.

After the first response,

  • Express your hope for the future or your continued ambivalence (e.g., “I’m still confused”, “I wish we all could fix this so that it wouldn’t happen again”).
  • Provide reassurance, engage in inquiry, or ask for a time out.

Now let’s replay Yolanda and Jim’s comment and hear a possible response by Josh:

Yolanda: When meeting a new prospect, I have always found it helpful to put the focus on the prospect first, not on our product. I open with small talk and look around their office to find clues to ask about. If I see pictures of their family or an indication of a hobby, I always start there.

Jim: I disagree completely. People want you to get to the point and not waste their time. All that small talk and personal stuff is so Hispanic.

Josh: I am really uncomfortable with what is happening now. It doesn’t feel right at all. I’m not sure how to address this here, but I don’t think we can just keep talking as though it didn’t happen.

[Silence in the room]

Notice that Josh avoided blame and that while Jim could argue about his intention, he could not deny Josh’s discomfort.

At this point either others will join in and say something, or Jim himself might realize that he has put his foot in his mouth and do what he can to correct himself. If Jim does say something to make amends, Josh could respond with something like this:

Josh: It seems to me that you hadn’t set out to insult anyone. All of us have said things we later regretted.

With that statement, he separates Jim’s intent from the impact on Yolanda and himself.  He also transforms the original insult into a learning opportunity.

Suppose Jim gets defensive?

But suppose Jim moves into an aggressively defensive response:

Jim: What do you mean? What she said really was like a Latino. We learned in our cross-cultural classes that Hispanics tend toward a more personal approach to sales. Are you implying I’m racist?

Now this is tricky. Jim is trying to convert his insult into a statement of fact. How might Josh respond so that Jim feels less threatened yet Yolanda and the rest of the team don’t think that Jim’s comment is acceptable.

Josh: Yes, you are correct. The way I heard your statement caused me to feel uncomfortable. If you are saying you were just talking about cultural differences and have no intention of insulting or hurting anyone, that’s great. I am still rather confused, but I do feel much better.

Is Josh letting Jim off the hook? Well, yes, but so what? The point was not to punish Jim but to establish that in their meetings, people aren’t allowed to throw barbs, particularly ethnic barbs, at one another. With Jim’s “clarification” of his intention, the goal is accomplished. Josh is also separating intent from impact. The impact on him and (obviously) Yolanda was that the comment was hurtful. If Jim is now claiming there was no harmful intent, Josh can let it go.

Is Josh lying when he says he feels much better?  Actually Josh probably does feel better, because he acted on his principles, Yolanda has received support, and others in the meeting know that offensive remarks have consequences.  Josh is also continuing to acknowledge his own ambivalent feelings (“I am still rather confused”), but he has no need to rub Jim’s face in it.

With Josh’s last statement, the conflict has been more or less resolved for now and Suzanne, the manager, may continue on with the agenda.

The next post will consider the ethnic/racial dynamics in the case example.


  1. What do you think about how Josh handled it?
  2. How would you improve on what Josh said?
  3. Do you think that the race/ethnicity of  Jim, Yolanda, and Josh had any effect on how their comments were interpreted by the others?



Latting, J. K., & Ramsey, V. J. (2009). Reframing change:  How to deal with workplace dynamics, influence others, and bring people together to initiate positive change. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Tabitha Mcardle for providing the case in this post.



  1. Carole Marmell


    I’m still uncomfortable with the response. Granted, there needs to be some immediate feedback to get back on an even keel, but I believe the group also needs to process the negative impact of Jim’s statement. As stated here, Jim only knows that Josh didn’t like what he said; he has no real idea why, or why his statement was inappropriate.

    I agree about avoiding confrontation and name-calling. Still, this feels like a fragment, a first step toward addressing a major issue.

    • Jean L.


      Thanks for this comment, Carole. You raise an excellent point. I’m responding in a separate post that will show up in the a.m. I welcome your comments!

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