Conflict traps for the learning and development professional and presenter

#Chat2lrn is delighted to have a guest post from @NeilDenny.  Neil is the founder of allLD LTD Learning and Development.  He is a speaker and presenter specialising in conflict leadership skills and dynamics, delivering workshops, keynotes and one to one conflict skills coaching across the UK, Europe and America. Neil is also the author of the conflict resolution book “Conversational Riffs; Creating Meaning Out Of Conflict”, you can download a free PDF copy by going to” . Neil can be contacted at  

A recent conversation on Facebook caught my attention. The original poster was explaining a challenge he was facing. He had recently delivered some leadership skills training. As part of the program he explored mirroring and matching as a way of building rapport.

He went on to explain that “Some of the more religious Christians” in the group fed back that they thought the methods were “Morally wrong, manipulative and deceptive.”

In summarising his post he asserted that he had always seen himself as being “A highly moral person” who “Believed in doing what is right for people” before inviting responses.

It has so far received over 70 responses!

The conversation covers various areas – the use of NLP, delivery techniques, framing and such like. In this article I want to focus specifically on presenters and trainers can encounter conflict in our work and how we tend to perceive, react and respond to conflict.

Here was my original response:

You know there could be some neat conflict dynamics at play here but then I would say that; some delegates report that they find a technique – not you, a technique – to be manipulative and possibly immoral. You respond by defending your own character not only as a moral individual but, look, Highly Moral. Are you sure you were ever being criticised? We then also see a degree of fundamental attribution against the critics – you attribute their criticism, it seems directly to the fact that they have not only a Christian faith but, again, the inflated characteristic – the *more* religious Christians. So some folk don’t like mirroring and matching and feel uneasy about using it? Some folk didn’t like a part of what you presented? That too is just fine. Keep going.

Transference of criticism

Note how the feedback is seemingly against the content but it has been interpreted as an attack against the individual.

Concerns are expressed that the techniques are dubious and that has been acutely felt as a personal attack.  In an instant the criticisms levelled against the content have been taken on by the presenter.

And note the response – a reflex defensive counter assertion and that delightful over assertion at that.

See how language very quickly becomes exaggerated and inflated.  We often use this inflated and absolutist language (always/never) as it seems to make our positions clearer and more immune to attack. 

The invocation of indignation

I love the invocation of indignation.  We can recognise it very quickly in the utterance “How dare you!” and it is brilliantly demonstrated in that classic adolescent educational video Withnail and I.  Here’s a clip which is always worth shoehorning into any article (warning: its potty mouthed stuff)

The invocation of indignation is a neat device by which the indignant speaker can snatch back momentum and forces the recipient onto the defensive.  The result is that original complaint is quickly lost by the effective distraction created by the vehement indignation asserted by the other.

In fairness the post did not assert “How dare they call me immoral…” but you can see that it is intimated.

Attribution Bias

Attribution error or bias is a recognised cognitive dysfunction.

It sees us, when conflict arises, explaining the actions of another person by attributing motives or characteristics to that person.  These motives and characteristics will usually be unattractive or malevolent.

In this article an attribution appeared to have been made as follows:

“The reason they were objecting to the material was because of the characteristic of being “The more religious Christians in the group.”

When we attribute characteristics in this way then we explain away the feedback or incident.  We also risk dismissing the protagonist along with their concerns.  This can be very difficult and create seriously soured relationships between you and your delegates.

When we attribute characteristics then we create a sense of “Otherness” between us and them.  We render them as being different to not only us but the rest of their group and peers.  A very high risk strategy.  You will either successfully isolate them from their peers causing acute embarrassment and distress or their peers rush to their defence and reclaim them as one of their own… and you as the outsider.


The very posting of this discussion was also interesting.  It can be seen as an attempt to recruit likeminded people to our side of this conversation.   Note the role of the language used in doing – the over assertions as to morality, the designation of tribes based on characteristics as discussed above.  The 70+ responses then become fascinating in their own right.  Many commentators are happy to play out that invitation, supporting the original poster in a possible desire for affirmation that “It’s not me is it?”

This recruitment technique can be seen in presentations and live events when the presenter looks to the delegate group to back her or him up, again with possibly disastrous results.

5 tips on receiving challenges

  1. Be clear on what is being challenged. Chances are it is your content, not you.  Hold your content lightly.
  2. Be mindful of conflict dynamics. Particularly watch out for attribution bias – the impression you form of them in that split second after they have given their feedback or asked their question.
  3. Know when the knife goes in. Acknowledge to yourself that the comment made by the other person hurts or, at the very least, feels uncomfortable. Doing so will put you on guard that you need to be really careful right now. Try making your discomfort explicit, calling it out to the rest of the group. Some of my very best experiences come from doing just this.

    “Oh, ow. That’s an interesting point isn’t it?  So what I’m hearing is that this might not actually work here, is that right?  In what ways might it not work or not apply here? What would make it work or what would need to change?”

    These responses are key facilitation skills and also invite the delegates to build upon their existing knowledge, building your new content upon the platform of what they already know, believe and experience in their own context… and how valuable is that

  4. Smile to yourself as you recognise the temptation to invoke indignation.  And then choose not to!
  5. Give up on your need for them to learn.  Your need is to deliver the very best that you can and to make the learning (by them) possible or even, heck, likely.  The learning is their responsibility and choice.  You cannot make them learn.  I think there is something in always aspiring to deliver brilliant work that will enlighten, equip and enable others.  As long as you know that you have acted out that intent honestly then we can start to let go of our dependency on them blessing us with their learning.  The funny thing is that when we stop pushing the learning and instead join them in wrestling with the material (“Heck, this is really difficult isn’t it…?  I didn’t explain that very well did I?  Somebody help me out here… what am I missing do you think?) then the learning experience flies – even after it has just crashed and burned after a particularly barbed response.

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