Move from Combative to Collaborative Communication in Four Steps

Jun 15, 2022 | First Person

By Teresa Harlow, bestselling author, speaker and collaboration coach, and member of NAWBO Columbus

Toxic work relationships can destroy a business. They can inhibit team collaboration, increase turnover, cost you customers and shatter valuable supplier partnerships. What are you doing to ensure your teams know how to prevent or diffuse hostility and move from combative to collaborative when tensions flare?

Transforming interactions from contentious to cooperative is not as hard as you may think. In fact, there are four steps you can follow to improve the interactions you enjoy with everyone in your life—from family to coworkers to the tech support person you’re calling for help. In fact, even if you’ve historically battled with someone over a long period of time, you can still make inroads to improve even your most challenging relationships using these four steps.

Ready to learn how? Let’s go…

1. Focus on Your Purpose

Now there’s what you want and then there’s your purpose for having a relationship or interaction with this other person. For example, you may want your team member to complete a task. But to understand your purpose, ask yourself these questions.

  • Why is this relationship important to you?
  • What is at stake?
  • What is your purpose for interacting with this party?
  • Are you trying to solve a problem, retain a customer, improve a supplier relationship or restore positivity? Why is that important?
  • What are the consequences if things go badly?

Focus on your purpose rather than what you want as you begin your interaction.

2. Appreciate/Acknowledge/Empathize

Yes, you have a problem to solve. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that everyone has problems to solve and work to do. So when you engage another individual, keep in mind that their priorities and pressures may differ from yours—even if you are working toward the same overarching business goal.

Before issuing a command or requesting help from another person, first appreciate, acknowledge and empathize with them. Acknowledgment and empathy let the other person know you recognize their viewpoint and appreciation lets them know you value them.

3. State Your Desire

What do you want to have happen as a result of this interaction? What are your interests? What outcome(s) are you seeking? Be specific and state what you want directly with an even tone. Don’t try to convince the other party that you are right or defend your position.

4. Ask For Their Help in Solving the Problem

After stating your desired outcome in simple terms, ask the other person for their help in solving the problem. The importance of this last step cannot be overstated. Generally, people like to help when asked and to be part of the solution. Asking for their help will make them feel valuable and they will be more likely to both implement and stick to the solution.

Putting it All Together

Let’s take a run at applying the four steps to a common business conflict between two businesses.

Scenario: You are the owner of a marketing firm. Kaitlyn, a large customer who has always been confrontational with you, but happy with your firm’s work, just informed your VP of Sales that she is taking her business to another marketing agency due to problems with her last project. If you lose Kaitlyn’s business, you’ll have to lay people off and fear other clients could follow. You need to get to the bottom of this, but fear Kaitlyn is going to lay into you. Call Kaitlyn to follow up on this news using the four steps.

Focus: Find out why this is happening; retain Kaitlyn’s business, prevent layoffs; correct issues; take action to prevent further loss of business; restore customer confidence.

Appreciate/Acknowledge/Empathize: “Kaitlyn, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me (appreciate). I am very sorry that we didn’t meet your expectations on your last project (acknowledge). You must feel frustrated. I would be too. (empathize).”

State Your Desire: “I would love the opportunity to make this right and restore your confidence in us to continue serving you.”

Ask For Their Help: “Could you help me understand from your perspective what happened and what needs to be corrected to fix this?”

What comes next is going to greatly depend on Kaitlyn’s response to your question. She may stay or she may still go elsewhere. But at least you will have laid the foundation for an open, honest and collaborative conversation from which you can learn something and move forward.



About the Author

Teresa Harlow is a bestselling author, speaker and collaboration coach. She has spent over 30 years in business helping individuals and teams transform their most combative relationships into collaborative partnerships. Her latest book, Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code, is endorsed by bestselling authors Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Gary Chapman (The 5 Love Languages).

As a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, Teresa has a reputation as a dynamic public speaker who uses the power of storytelling and creative presentation flair to deliver an engaging and entertaining experience. She delivers compelling presentations around the world to organizations of all sizes, writes for a number of publications focused on helping families and businesses and is a frequent media guest on TV, radio and podcasts. Learn more at or email [email protected].

Skip to content