Learn to Empathize When Dealing with Conflict: An Interview with Tricia Broderick


Tricia Broderick is an agile learning facilitator at Santeon Group and has more than six years of experience focusing on agile principles. In this interview, Tricia talks about conflict resolution, the importance of empathy, and the misalignment between one's perceptions and intentions.

Tricia Broderick is an agile learning facilitator at Santeon Group and has over six years of experience focussing on agile principles. In this interview, Tricia talks about conflict resolution, the importance of empathy, and the misalignment between one's perceptions and intentions.

Jonathan Vanian: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to chat with us, Tricia.

Tricia Broderick: Absolutely. No problem.

JV: So let's start off with having you talk a little bit about yourself—what you do, your occupation, and your experience.

TB: That's always a hard question to answer. There's somebody who once that answered with, "being a human being." I want to steal that answer.

JV: I like the human being answer, but let's think about our readers, testers, and developers, and such.

TB: Yeah. I've done a multitude of different roles. I started off as a developer, moved into a lot of project management, scrum master roles. Then I headed into a director of development position and role. I recently joined back into consulting where I'm doing coaching and training on agile and software development, specifically in the industry focusing a little bit more on project management and leadership as a whole.

JV: With some of the people we've talked to, they've had similar experiences. They started out as developers and they went into team management. What got yourself interested in that route?

TB: To be honest, I kind of went in kicking and screaming. I've had great mentors and coaches myself and leaders that saw the potential in me and kept trying to find opportunities where I could explore it. I was one of those developers that was terrified of losing my developer cred and what made me actually valuable. I fought it for a very long time.

I actually—which is a whole other side topic—but I actually now advocate for people that by the time you have to choose between management and technical, you already have. You already know where you're excelling and where you find rewards. For me, helping people was always bigger and more rewarding to me than any line of code I ever wrote. It was an easy transition at the end towards management, but not at the beginning.

JV: What got you interested in conflict? This idea of conflict resolution? 

TB: I'm not exactly one to shy away from conflict personally. Then suddenly when you become leader people really struggle with conflicts. That and public speaking are way up there in the areas that really hold teams back from high performance. It was a topic that I really struggled with as a leader helping other people, because for me it was just go have the conversation. It's not a big deal.

JV: Sure.

TB: That just didn't seem to resonate with a lot of people, so I really started exploring how I was going to open people up to wanting to own their conflict, and then how they could go about resolving it in a healthy way.

JV: Can you explain what is conflict in a team? 

TB: Conflicts can be so many different things. It can be behavioral challenges—what one person does and another person perceives. It can be actual words that hurt somebody's feelings. It can be actions. I actually had a conflict where I had somebody in my office once because they believed somebody else ate a candy bar out of their drawer. Anything can form in terms of conflict. At the end of the day, we are human beings, and people are not the same, which lends itself to conflict—whether it's word-based, behavior-based, or just in general judgments and perception-based.

JV: Your sessions involve you delving into conflict. What goes on in your sessions?

TB: I came out of this with a little bit of a different perspective. There are tons of sessions out there about how to frame a conflict conversation. Those are hugely beneficial. I personally have used a lot of different techniques. Crucial Conversations is a great book.

I'm actually coming at this session a little bit differently. I'm coming at it from a leader's perspective and saying, "How do you get others not just to use a framework to resolve conflict, but actually want to use a framework? How do you get them to actually want to figure out what's going on and solve the problem?" As we know in the agile community, ownership is such a powerful thing in getting a valid and awesome result. How do you actually take a step before the conflict resolution and prime people for conflict resolution? This session is much more a lead-in to conflict resolution, more so than the actual conflict resolution itself.

JV: What goes on in this framework that you talk about? 

TB: Individuals in the technology fields tend to be problem solvers. We all have this left-brain logical problem-solving curiosity, which is part of the reason why we got into this industry. I actually leverage this framework that has a way of stepping a person through using powerful questions, using a thought process that turns it into a problem. What do they do and how did that make you feel? Why do you think they did it?

Then having them explore alternative-wise, not just the negative ones that emotionally come to us first, but also positive ones. Through that process, start asking them, "Which reason do you really think this person did it?" Most likely, most times, people are not snakes. We are not doing it to be malicious to other people.

It gives the individual an opportunity to really step back and say, "Ok. I know that I'm really angry, but let's give the person the benefit of the doubt. Now I want to go and have a conversation that: a) figure out if I was right that this is really the reason they did it and b) give them feedback as to how that really did impact me." They come at it much more open, because they are in that problem-solving curiosity state, not in the defensive-upset reactive state.

JV: It's sort of like instilling empathy in them; learning to empathize with the other people on your team.

TB: Yeah. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. The hard part is a lot of leaders will say that. It's an easier thing to say than to do, because you do have a reaction to the incident. You do have feelings and responses to the conflict. You first have to process those to get to the next stage, to be able to then put yourself in the other person's shoes.

JV: Do you ever have instances where somebody will just go with an emotion and be like, "Yeah, right. I understand what this person says."  What part of the framework deals with people like that who just say it but aren't necessarily believing what they say? 

TB: That's one of the stages and the highlighter for me that they still need to process what happens. They still need to internalize it. They're still reacting. There might even be some deeper problems that are occurring. It's not just the conflict itself. Maybe there's a deeper conflict that's been going on. Maybe there are deeper fears that are going on; that it's not the conflict, but it's the fear of what people do think of that individual. I inherently believe that most people are good-hearted and good-natured. If there's something deeper going on, then I have to dig into that. Most people will give someone the benefit of the doubt once they have time to process it and explore the possibilities.

JV: Can you explain the misalignment between perceptions and intentions? 

TB: I don't even know how many years ago I took this online course. It was meant to be a requirement to get my project management, PMI, PMP certification. The whole course was about how much perceptions tend to not align with intentions. What I perceive your intention is and why you did something tends to be completely different than what your true intention really was.

The difficulty with this is that people they know what their intentions are. They can't guess what people are perceiving. In a lot of cases when I see conflict arising, it is lack of alignment between those. The trick for me as a leader is trying to figure out a way to prime people to be open to the fact that their judgment, their perception, might not be truly why that other person did it and the intentions behind the other person.

It's opening up that world, but people tend to think I'm magical because I can resolve those conflicts. In reality, it's just my first route. Most likely they didn't do that because they were mean, or they were trying to make you look dumb, or any of those things. They were doing it maybe to uphold the working agreement. There are lots of reasons that play into that.

JV: It just goes back to empathizing; getting out of your head.

TB: Right. Coming from different perspectives. At the end of the day, that is what teams are about.

JV: Let's talk about the developer in this situation. How does a developer take ownership of this conflict without stepping on people's toes too much? 

TB: The first thing is the leader has to not take ownership. If you want other people to take ownership, you can't take ownership. This was hard for me. This was really hard for me to not want to just say, "Ok. I can see both of your perspectives, so let me get you together. I'll moderate a discussion so you can hear it."  There are definitely times that that needs to happen. It, unfortunately, was my first go-to. My first step in getting somebody else to own it is not taking ownership. You can do those kinds of things by asking questions, like, "So what are you to do next?"  It's not about me. It's going to be what are you going to do next? Are you going to follow up with me after you do the next stage and see how it worked out. That's probably number one with it.

Number two, and for me with this specific technique, is leveraging that problem solving, that curiosity that I was talking about. I find that technical people in general, once they have a problem, they want to know the answer.  Once it's been framed like this, "Okay. Here's what happened. Here's what you thought. Here are some potentials. What is the right intention?"

I'm easy until they really find out what the true cause or the true reason was. That's not to say that they might have to leverage other techniques in order to resolve that conflict and have that healthy conversation, but leading up to it and the ownership, forming things are no problem. There’s a surprising amount of ownership from technical people.

JV: I can imagine. Have you ever had sessions where there's conflict between two people and you got them to open up and empathize and it led to a breakthrough? "Oh wow. I never saw it that way." 

TB: Almost always. People don't realize how they're perceived at times, because it's different for everybody. I might react to a behavior very differently than you, because of my history, my experience, a former failure on my part, a former incident, a former conflict. It is amazing how one behavior can have ten different perceptions. That behavior still only had one intention from that person, but there could be ten different perceptions. At the end of the day, it's really hard to guess or to know what other people are thinking or how they're reacting to something, and why it's really critical that we start communicating and talking about it in teams.

JV: Got you.

TB: Almost always, “I had no idea; that's not why I did it. I didn't mean to make you angry or hurt your feelings.” “That wasn't why I did it” often comes up.

JV: “If I would have known then how you would feel, I would have rephrased my words a little bit differently.”

TB: Absolutely.

JV: In closing for this interview, what sort of trends are you seeing in project management for this upcoming year? 

TB: For project management as a whole, you see a lot of articles out there highlighting, "Let's get rid of managers." If you read the articles closely, it's really awesome, because it's "Let's get right of managers. Let's get leaders." There's nothing more that I want to see in the community. I think the more time we spend as project managers being leaders, the more results we're going to have from high-performing teams and from results to delivery to value with the customers, and what the results are going to be.

One trend I see at least is how we start making sure that the tools that we use support us as leaders to support our teams, not just to manage our teams. I almost want to change the title from project managers to project leaders.

JV: Finally, do you have any New Year's resolutions? 

TB: I think what I probably am going to focus the most on this year, and this session is one of them, is continuing to pay it forward to the community that I've learned so much from. In my paying it forward to be really honest about the uglier side at times of this learning, to not just get up and say, "Here's the perfect way to do it." but, "Here are some of the ways to do it, and how I learned to get there." Giving some of those failures and, really, the awesome growth parts of those sessions when I pay it forward. That's probably my New Year's resolution and what I'm targeting for the New Year.

JV: Very cool. Alright, Tricia. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

TB: Thank you.


TriciaTricia Broderick is an agile leaning facilitator at Santeon Group. With sixteen years of experience—the last six focused on agile principles—her passion for mentoring and coaching has been essential in successfully transitioning from manager to agile leader. Recently, Tricia’s team summarized her leadership by noting that she knows just when to guide someone out of the comfort zone while continuously providing support and encouragement.

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