How To Build Conflict Skills—The Pinch/Crunch Model

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We’ve all heard the clichés: Pick your battles. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Good advice, to a point, but for the conflict-averse, it is possible to be too selective about raising issues. Avoiding conflict can make matters worse—when you minimize or ignore smaller disagreements, annoyances, or hurtful comments and actions, over time, the so-called “small stuff” accumulates until the molehill becomes a mountain. Then, because you have been stuffing away your anger or hurt, you explode and the conflict escalates. The potential damage to your relationships and the difficulty of finding a resolution at this point is significant. In many cases, rather than brushing aside a minor issue, you would be better served to raise and resolve it when it first arises.

In my work with students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, we practice the pinch/crunch model of addressing conflict. We recommend tackling minor disruptions, annoyances and disappointments (pinches), which can generally be talked through and resolved, before they accumulate to become major conflicts (crunches) that are much more difficult and messy to repair. The benefits of raising a pinch are numerous:

  • You shed light on the other person’s blind spot, letting them know what your needs are and what their impact is so that they are less likely to do it again. Additionally, you learn about their intent and perspective
  • You surface the unspoken assumptions and expectations that you each hold. Once they are revealed, you can clarify expectations and dispel unfounded assumptions.
  • You can repair and strengthen the relationship, rather than building up frustration that results in relationship deterioration and loss of trust.
  • You build your “conflict competence” in the relationship so that you will be better able to resolve bigger conflicts in the future. It’s like a lightweight bicep curl for your conflict muscle.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you and Joe, a peer who also reports to your manager, are working together to create a presentation for senior leadership. You enjoy collaborating with Joe and find him easy to work with, reliable and respectful. A week before the presentation, you schedule a meeting with your manager to get her feedback on the slide deck. On the call, Joe takes the lead in walking your manager through the deck. You chime in where you can, but he does most of the talking and you are left feeling frustrated that your voice didn’t get heard, worried that your boss will think Joe did most of the work, and annoyed that Joe didn’t make room for you.

You feel a pinch, but should you say anything to Joe? After all, he is a really good guy, you didn’t actually have any agreement about who would lead and it probably wasn’t intentional. You don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, do you? Maybe Joe will get defensive or think you’re oversensitive. Maybe you should just let it go.

Maybe. But pinch/crunch theory holds that you should address the pinch, talk about it, and resolve it so that you can return to getting along. Here’s how:

You: “Hey, Joe. I’ve been really happy with our collaboration so far and I want to clear the air about something that happened at the meeting with our boss. I appreciate the effort you put into the deck and kicking off the call, but I was a bit surprised that you led the whole discussion. I had been hoping to be more 50/50 on the call and I had some difficulty getting into the conversation. I assume it was not intentional, and I realize that we didn’t have any explicit agreement about roles going into the call. But I wanted to let you know that I felt frustrated and want to have a larger role going forward. Let’s talk about how we present together going forward so that we can both participate more equally, especially at the upcoming presentation to leadership. I’d also like to hear what your thoughts were about the call and how our collaboration is going.”

Joe: “Wow, I didn’t realize I did that. I was excited and just got on a roll, but I didn’t intend to exclude you. I didn’t know that you cared about who said what with our boss—she knows how hard you work. Listen, I value your perspective and would have been totally fine if you had jumped in. I’m committed to sharing the platform when we present to leadership and happy to come to a clear agreement. How so you want to handle it?”

As the conversation continues, you can set mutual expectations, clarify your roles for the presentation to leadership and return to getting along.

But what if you don’t confront Joe? If you ignore the pinch, perhaps you are left with some residue of frustration. Maybe a little coldness or suspicion starts to creep into your relationship with Joe. You might even begin to form an impression that he wants all the credit! If you start to create this inner narrative, you might withdraw, leaving Joe in the dark regarding your wishes. Oblivious of your feelings, he might dominate another conversation and you could find yourself in a “crunch” situation. Or you could adopt a more competitive approach and try to dominate the next call. In that case, Joe might feel a pinch and withdraw or he might react with anger. Now you are on the path to relationship deterioration, ruptured trust, and lower performance. You can still repair a relationship after a crunch, but it is typically messier and more difficult, all of which could have been avoided if you had raised and resolved the pinch.

To be sure, there are times when it is best to let a conflict go, but sometimes “picking your battles” means choosing to address small pinches in service of strengthening relationships and clarifying expectations. Try this approach in your personal life or with a trusted co-worker. Consider sharing the pinch/crunch framework so that they know what you mean when you say, “Sujay, I felt a small pinch when you were looking at your phone while we were talking…..” Before long, your conflict muscles will be ready for heavy lifting!