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Creative Conflict Resolution

Hone your listening and reasoning skills when dealing with staff and club member issues.

When you signed on as manager, you had no way of knowing how time-consuming and stressful it can be to manage people who are angry at each other or angry at you! Yet here you are, spread thin with the responsibilities of administrative work, budgets, member retention and growth, and hiring—when one of your personal trainers comes to you with a problem.

“I can’t believe you put me on the floor again. I’ve been here 6 months, and I’ve more than earned a spot on the regular rotation. I’m ready to train, so let me do it!” The problem is that this particular trainer is chronically late, has had poor feedback from his mentor and doesn’t show the kind of attitude that is in harmony with the facility’s mission. So what do you do? How do you handle this type of conflict, which isn’t on your meeting schedule or your to-do list?

Sooner or later, everyone encounters a person who acts in ways that are annoying, irritating or even infuriating. Maybe it’s an unfair boss, an insensitive co-worker, a thoughtless client, an unkind customer or a frustrating family member. These encounters give us an opportunity to respond—and make the situation either better or worse. While no one likes conflict, it is an inevitable part of life, work and relationships. Here are creative, constructive steps to take so that sparks don’t become flames in your fitness facility.

Simply Listen

Whenever someone is upset, agitated and ready to do battle, the best thing you can do is simply listen. If a staff member or customer is obviously upset about something and is “spouting off,” resist the urge to interrupt or ask the person to “calm down”—except, of course, in situations where the conversation is disturbing others. Just listening generates several benefits. First, you allow the individual to vent feelings. Second, you gain insight into the problem. Third, you can begin to formulate possible solutions.

In the opening scenario, for example, you could take the trainer aside to a place where you have some privacy, listen to him fully and then craft a measured response, mirroring the trainer’s concern and detailing the “proof” behind why he’s not yet allowed to train one-on-one. Many times people just need to be heard. Once they’ve had a full chance to release, they’re usually in a better place emotionally to listen to you and receive feedback.

Understand the Available Responses, Then Choose One

There are five basic strategies to use when dealing with conflict:

1. Avoidance. This response is appropriate if the conflict is small and not worth an argument or a battle. It is inappropriate when the issue needs to be resolved quickly or when postponing it only makes matters worse. For example, if a cycling participant doesn’t like the music the instructor plays, but it’s not an issue of the music being too loud or crass, this may be the type of conflict you can safely avoid.

2. Accommodation. This response is appropriate if the issue can be resolved simply and quickly. It is inappropriate if the issue is a complex one needing more study and consideration. For example, if a personal trainer is butting heads with another staff member over training space during a particular time slot, you can either negotiate for an alternate space or go deeper to find out what the clients’ needs are and how to accommodate those needs.

3. Compromise. This response is appropriate when all parties are willing to be flexible and all parties receive something while giving up something else. It may be less effective when initial demands are too great and the parties are unable to commit to honoring the compromise. For example, if two group fitness instructors are fighting over the same time slot, compromising by offering another prime-time slot is a good option if both people are flexible.

4. Competition. This response is appropriate when a decision must be made and you have the authority to make it. Although far from ideal, the competitive approach is best used when someone must win and someone must lose. The great weakness of this approach is that a power-based decision does not enhance a group’s ability to work together harmoniously. For example, you may need to give a veteran instructor (with more experience and expertise) the coveted class she wants instead of giving it to a newer instructor. You’ll need to use your communication skills to smooth over any hard feelings and explain your position from an objective, professional viewpoint.

5. Collaboration. This response works well when individuals trust and respect one another, when there is time for all parties to share viewpoints and when members want what is best for the larger group. It may not work when time is limited, when people are forced to act before they can work through their differences or when there is not enough trust and respect. For example, if a group of “tried and true,” regular water-class participants become angry about a format change, give them an opportunity to share their concerns as a group and to offer alternative suggestions.

Change of Perspective

Often, issues are left unresolved because one party doesn’t exercise perspective. Rather than putting people in their place, try putting yourself in their place. The result is usually deeper understanding and appreciation of the other viewpoint. In the 1930s, American Airways, which later became American Airlines, routinely received a large number of complaints from passengers about lost luggage (Maxwell 2007). LaMotte Cohn, general manager of the airline, contacted station managers, explained the problem and asked for their help to overcome the issue. However, he saw very little progress, and customer complaints continued to mount.

Cohn came up with a creative way to help employees see the issue from their customers’ perspective. He asked all of the company’s airline managers to fly to company headquarters for a meeting. He made sure that every manager’s luggage was lost in transit. After the meeting there was a huge leap of efficiency in luggage handling by American Airways employees.

Use “I,” Not “You,” Sentences

When challenging someone’s words or behavior, you can be polite and powerful without coming across as aggressive and accusatory. The way to do this is to avoid “You” statements, replacing them with “I” ones. Notice the difference in impact between the sentences in the following pairs:

  • “You never clean the equipment as asked.” vs. “I need your support with equipment maintenance.”
  • “You are acting irrationally.” vs. “I would like to sit and discuss this calmly.”
  • “You’re wrong.” vs. “I don’t quite agree with that position.”
  • “You can’t explain anything clearly.” vs. “I don’t understand; can you please clarify?”
  • “You stole my client.” vs. “My schedule says I have the same appointment.”
  • “You are always so negative.” vs. “I’d like to know more about why you feel that way.”

“You” statements signal to other people that a criticism is coming their way and they become defensive. Switching from “You” to “I” is a simple way to avoid a verbal battle that could escalate the conflict.

As you work at conflict resolution, remember that what you and the opposing parties really want are creative solutions that meet the needs of all involved. Commit to reaching common ground as much as possible.


Maxwell, John C. 2007. Winning with People: Discover the People Principles that Work for You Every Time. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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