Cabrillo College trainer offers tips for dealing with workplace conflict

Cabrillo College trainer offers tips for dealing with workplace conflict

By JONDI GUMZ – Santa Cruz Sentinel –

APTOS – Imagine this scenario: You must talk with your team about a budget cut and the possible impact on your work environment. For any manager, it’s a challenging situation that could result in employees disengaging and costing the organization money, time and talent.

It’s a situation familiar to Claire Laughlin, a trainer based at Cabrillo College and dedicated to positive organizational change.

She spoke to 95 people at the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce Women in Business quarterly luncheon Thursday at Seacliff Inn, offering three tools to harness conflict for better decision-making.

The key, she said, is to structure a meeting agenda to include time to deal with diverse, and sometimes, divergent ideas.

“It doesn’t have to be long,” she said, warning, “You’ll get resistance at first, but after a while people will be OK with it.”

Her three tools are:

  1. The name game: This could mean listing at least five pros and cons for the idea before moving on. Or it could be five things you love or hate about the idea. It’s important to make it safe for everyone to speak. If some tend to dominate discussion while others remain silent, you can call for one-word responses, or use a round-robin approach where everyone speaks.
  2. Name the elephant: This means identifying whatever it is that people are unwilling to talk about. The meeting leader might say, “You’ve been quiet; do you disagree with how we’re moving forward?” or “What do you have to contribute?” To prevent the meeting from getting off-track, the leader might say, “We have time for two comments.” One client of Laughlin’s took this advice to heart, buying miniature elephants to put on the table during meetings.
  3. Concerns vision actions: This means asking “If those concerns were solved, what would things be like?” and following up with: “What practical steps can we take to achieve this?” To avert a session of gripes, the leader can limit discussion of concerns to 10 minutes before moving onto vision and actions.

Laughlin’s top tip for meeting leaders: Suspend your belief that you have the answer.

“We can disengage others because we think we are right,” she said.

One woman asked what to do when people arrive late to a meeting and want the speaker to go over what they missed.

Among the strategies: Lock the door, fine the latecomers with the money going to a nonprofit or offer to help the latecomers catch up afterward. Another option is to let the group choose whether to stick with that time or pick a later start.

“If we were late to a meeting, we had to sing,” said Bonnie Weaver, Santa Cruz branch manager for Comerica Bank.

Kalyne Foster of Women’s Crisis Support/Defensa De Mujeres, said the most valuable advice she got was “making space for people to speak.”

Added Priscilla Leighton of SCI in Monterey, “Small positive steps can make a difference.”

Follow Sentinel reporter Jondi Gumz on Twitter: @jondigumz


The Cabrillo College Corporate Training Program is starting a leadership book club.

The first book will be “Tribal Leadership,” by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright. Those interested can join a phone chat noon to 1 p.m. Aug. 9. The phone number is 888-996-3951; the pass code is 426660.

Cabrillo’s corporate training program is open to any local nonprofit or small business. For information, email

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