Tech Leader Chats: How to deal with conflict with Wen Hsu

Title of talk with photo of speaker

Conflict is as inevitable as death & taxes! However, it's not something many people formally learn in school or get trained on at work, which leaves many of us to deal with it ourselves.

Managing conflict is especially important for our community of engineering leaders interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We know that research shows that greater diversity of thought leads to better business, but more heads can also create more opportunities for disagreement.

So how do we manage conflict "well"? What does that look like at work, with peers, managers, or direct reports? And what about in our personal lives?

About the speaker
Wen Hsu is the founder and Chief Transformation Officer at Wen Coaching. After working 15+ years as an engineering leader in the tech industry (including Patreon and Switchfly), Wen became known for her strategic thinking, building self-sustainable teams, and creating empathetic leaders.

She's also navigated conflict at work and in her personal life – she experienced the constraints and hurdles immigrant female leaders face first hand. She also lost herself in the process of climbing corporate America and was exhausted from working hard to prove herself again and again. Thankfully, through deep inner work, courage, and coaching, she found her way back to herself. We're excited to learn from Wen's insights!

How to deal with conflict

See below for:

  • Key takeaways from the talk
  • The recording and slides
  • Resources noted in the talk
  • A transcript of the talk
Key takeaways

think of conflict as a gift

conflict helps you understand yourself better

conflict helps you build stronger relationships

conflict helps you create a better future

Recording and slides

You can view the slides from the talk here - and see below for the full recording



Transcribed by software, please forgive minor errors.

Lauren Peate  0:02  
welcome, Wen. We're really excited to have you here. So these tech leader chats are geared for engineering leaders who care about people and also are committed to equity and inclusion. And so lovely engineering, but you know, also open to other people working in tech too, so, so very welcome. We are out. So I'm just introduced, a few of us will be supporting along the way. I'm Lauren. I'm the CEO and founder of multitudes, we do ethical analytics and recommendations to a lot happier and higher performing engineering teams. And then James will be running the questions and doing all the background check and breakout rooms and all of that. And then we've got vivek another multitudes team member hoping jumping in. So it's a few of us in the background. And we run through the plan for the day. So I'm gonna just go ahead and introduce when, because that's why we're all here. So we're stoked to have Wen coming on board. I met Wen, probably middle of last year, and literally after we met at the time, we were just setting up these chats and just figuring out the speaker roster. And we knew that that she was someone that we needed to come in and have speak. She is someone who is very open about her own learning and her own journey along the way. Really, she's someone who really exemplifies that Brene, Brown, the modelling vulnerability so that there's space for others. And this topic in particular, it can be a vulnerable one conflict, we know comes up in all sorts of ways in the workplace. And so we knew that she would be the perfect person to speak on this. It's something that we've gotten a lot of requests about both around giving feedback at work, or just tough conversations, disagreements. So yeah, really stoked to have Wen here. And in terms of the more formal background, she's the founder and chief transformation officer at Wen coaching, and she's got a wealth of experience from being an engineering leader, she worked at both Patreon and Switchfly. And her focus is really one, she brings strategy, strategic thinking, but her focus is really around building self sustaining teams and creating empathetic leaders. So with that, let me hand it over to Wen thank you so much.

Wen Hsu  2:13  
Thank you, Lauren, for the fantastic introduction. So welcome, everybody. I'm so excited to be here. And I learned that this talk to me is actually quite loaded. Yep. And Lauren has talked a lot about how most people wouldn't know about me like LinkedIn, etc. And what really intrigued me with this topic is that I actually struggled with conflict, almost my entire life for my upbringing as like a Asian woman, where I'm taught to stay quiet, right to stay harmony, and in the sense that I learned that conflict is something to avoid. And because of that, I bring what I learned into, you know, how I work. Also, when I become a Junior Leader, and, you know, you were somehow but not always, that's why we're all here still trying to find out how to figure it out. And so for this talk, I actually have two parts for you. One is my personal story about how I came to the awareness and actually being a coaching session that changed my ways. me someone needs to be muted. Change My Relationship with conflict completely. And then second part, I'm going to share some slides basically walk you through, like what I learned and the I coded the Inside Out approach that I developed that I used on myself, my direct records, you know, my peers and now my clients. Okay. So, like I mentioned, I'm so used to avoid conflict avoidant, I didn't even notice that when this happened, I just default to not engage naszej too much. And of course, this doesn't work in a new relationship. So when I was in, like the first year of a new relationship with my partner, we often have arguments and conflicts where, you know, it's so much such tension so uncomfortable. Sometimes like we shout at each other, and sometimes we just don't talk for days, I bet this all happened to us. And as this continue to happen, I really wonder, how do I make this work? Oh my god. And luckily for me, I have a coach at that time. And in our coaching session, usually we'll talk about career. And but he said something is weird. For me. The energy wasn't right, though. He asked me about what happened. And I told him, and I just basically skip through, like the events and wanting to get on to like the important career topic. But then he asked me if things like this is bothering you now, like, what? What is it? So he started asked me, asking me like four questions literally changed how I see conflicts. And the first question he asked me is, what is it that you really want? And without a doubt, and like, of course, I want to build a great relationship. Right. That's why I even avoid conflicts because it doesn't feel good to be in conflict. And this.

Lauren Peate  6:37  
we just lost Wen for a second. Well, yeah, you're back now. So we got the first question, but not the second.

Wen Hsu  6:42  
Okay, great. So the second question completely blew my mind. Because he asked me, How well is what you're doing, getting you what you want? When I hear that question, I was like, Oh, my God, I'm doing the exact opposite. By not talking to my partner about what I really think he rob heard the opportunity to understand my perspective, or to even know I'm angry, screaming, and then I created the stories in my head about how he is not respectful of me thing, say, Dad, so I don't give her a opportunity to talk about her side of story. And then my coach asked, so how is what you're doing costing you? Hey, I was like, it's gonna cost my relationship, if I continue to do this, and don't show up, don't engage and avoiding conflicts. And the fourth one, literally change my world. He asked, So where else to see this pattern showing up. And at that moment, I was like, ouch. Because I see in how I talk to family, I see, especially at work every time, you know, I get, I have a new pm or my friend turn, you know, coworker for me, I just didn't know how to express, like some of the changes or improvements, etc, I really want to see because my default is to avoid conflict. Right? So the good thing with that awareness is that then I get to choose because I learned that what I have been doing is not getting what I really want. Now only, you know, it's actually every relationships, right at work at home, everything, then I get to make a different choice. So from that moment on, I made the commitment to myself, I'm going to stay in engage. Doesn't matter how uncomfortable it is. And I do this, because I'm coming from care, coming from wanting to really build a relationship that works for us. So I'm happy to announce that actually, my partner and I are getting married this year. So I get some sort of those streak works. And I apply similar mindset shift and continue to try and try right with all the conflicts that I see. With my team, especially being in the Bay Area, leading a team of very diverse people I have experience with like near shorting of shorting. You can just imagine how Conflict issue coming out from a zone, different culture, misunderstanding everything. And from there, I start to develop what I call an inside out approach to get to penetrate the bottom of conflict and really choose how I want to respond to conflict. Right. So here, I'm going to pass and share my screen. Right. And you will see it. Great, awesome, great. So when I think about the topic of conflict, this is like the picture that really pop up that I want to show you. Because conflicts, especially when we're in it, we feel the heat, we feel the tension, oftentimes, we feel the anger, we feel the hurt, right, it's so hard for us to get through that emotion and feel like you're not like personally attacked, or, you know, finding out like higher perspective. But truth is conflicts are really people taking stand to to, to protect something that matters to them. So it is the same for you and for the other party. So when we are in conflict, there are two common reactions. One is flight, we feel the need to be right. And in that sense, we could win the battle, but still lose the world. And the second is flight, we could get disengaged, which is which was my default pattern, where we keep ourselves out of the equation. And under surface is things fine, but now it's picking up really create this fake piece that leads to stagnation in resentment, which was my case as well. And I pull up this image because I want to show you underneath the surface of conflict, you will find that the two people are actually feeling the same deeper emotions. So when we are able to come in from this place of you know, no one is here to create a conflict on purpose, right, we're all here to protect something that we believe in, then we get to make a different choice, we get to elevate our thinking such that, yes, conflict creates tension. But at the same time, it can also create intimacy in invention. So it's not something to be afraid of, but something to be welcomed. And how I turned it into something that works for me, is actually started from me, because conflict differ from situations and people. But one thing that's common is you, it's me, it's us that within that conflict. So the change really starts from within. So the shift, the first one is to really start to seeing tensions and conflicts in different light. All right, so the first one is actually seeing it as a gift to understand yourself better. Why are you triggered? What's the value? That's, that's not respected? And the four magic questions that my coach has asked me when I are able to get into why is it that I take things personally, I started to be able to clear it out. And also connect back to why is it that's so important to me? And what do I really, really want to achieve here. And when I can get back to that space of okay, I'm here for a reason. And I want this relationship to work, then we're way more open and curious about how to find the best way to resolve conflicts in the world leads me to the second part, the second gift, which is to build a stronger relationships, because conflicts are such a clear signals for any misalignment, we get to ask ourselves, what is missing here is information contexts, mutual goals, or some sort of communication gifts, and oftentimes be curious about What the other party really care about? Where are they coming from. So we can seek to first understand, then to be understood. And this is really the best opportunity for us to learn about each other and to improve our differences. And also understand, we might have something that's mutual for us to start working with. So time after time, I bring my team and client through

questions and process like this, where I actually get to see after the conflict, we get to be even stronger trust and relationships, and we get to better process and bridge those gaps that we see in the misalignment. In the third one, is actually a gift to be creative. Right? In this case, was we, me and other party or everyone on the team, get a better understanding of where we're all coming from, then we get to tap into everyone's talent, given so many different perspectives, what can we create together here, and what's the bigger picture from different perspective, we get to think win, win, and hopefully come up with the solutions that will work for most. And I also want to mention that not everything is like roses. So there, of course, there will be times that it still does not work. And I, from my experience, I also want to say that, if that's the case, having no deal, meaning walk away, is actually an option too, because you have learned about yourself, knowing where you're coming from knowing where other people are coming from, there might be some collision in values, or in things that you don't want to stand for. And in that sense, it might be can be okay to walk away and say, Hey, this is not for me, I'm good. And I think that says it just gives us so much more space to work with, you know, we can always find new work and new relationship, if, you know, we know, we decided that's not working for us. So this is basically how the system I use to turn how I look at conflict into something, actually three gifts that will work for me for the team, and also like to have a much, much better outcome that we all want. So that's the end of my slide. So many paths here. And I want to open it up for q&a. Amazing.

Lauren Peate  18:03  
Well, thank you. Thank you, I'll do a quick things. When while people are thinking of other questions, feel free to put them in the chat. But yeah, just a couple of things I wanted to highlight that resonated so deeply for me. One was around that point that actually conflict is there's a kindness and we obviously we can raise it in different ways but but seeking to improve things, there's a kindness in that really resonated with that and loved, love that reframing of conflict from from conflict as a bad thing to conflict as actually thinking about it for the gifts that it can give us. I think that's really, yeah, really helps us focus instead on what we can get out of it. So yeah, with that, we'll open it up. James will take it away with questions. Just huge, huge. Thank you. And I know we got some questions beforehand. And then also, you know, you have other questions that came up during when's chat? Feel free to add

James Dong  18:53  
them. Great. Thank you again, so much. Wen that was so exciting. I'm happy to dive into these questions. The first one comes from Bianca Gibson, which is do you have any advice for navigating a situation where it doesn't appear there is positive intent, although it is in the context of a company culture that is placing emphasis on assuming positive intent. Okay, back difference.

Wen Hsu  19:20  
Hmm. Great, great question. I guess like in the face of conflict, there are many situations like similar to this right. And similarly, I will always check in with myself and see based on who I am and the values they have what seems right for me to do, right and in this case, I will probably call out the incongruence of not really respecting the the inclusive culture, right, it's like the elephant in the room, once we call it out, we can have a great discussion and really find ways to change that. But if we don't, if we touch the bullet around it, usually like the there is interesting thing about human, we're also animal body. So oftentimes, we can sense how the other person really feel. And in the in the case, in this case, I will really feel like tries what you feel is right to do, and code it out, just be open, if especially, that's the company culture that you want to build. So you also want to create that space to have an open conversation and how people accountable, right for what they subscribe to. Yeah. Thank you.

James Dong  21:04  
Thank you so much. The next question from Lydia is how do you adapt your approach to conflict when dealing with a diverse set of people on the team? How do you know the right way to approach conflict? People?

Wen Hsu  21:20  
Great, great question. The because it's diverse. And that's where I think extra, I guess, care and understanding is even more crucial, right? In the way, I think, like, doesn't matter how big the team is, or what's the issues, culture, gender, or whatever, right? The that's why I showed that picture earlier on the Burning Man. Because the thing is deep down, we want to create a culture where we truly believe that when we work as a team, we care, we care about each other, we want to find mutual solutions. And that care also extends to when you are different from me, I want to be curious to learn about you. Right? What's your perspective, things like that. And if, if it's a big thing is diverse, it might be even better for open conversation for us to really learn about each other. So before I have like happy hour, it can really be any forehand, right? Where we get to learn where people are coming from. And then from there really do that foundational understanding and trust, to even before we get to figure out a solution, because the thing with conflict is that if you don't feel hurt, the cause the resistance will always be there. And when you feel hurt, you're open to see other people's perspective. And that's, I think, where, especially in a diverse team, it will work. Thank you. That's great. What is your

James Dong  23:12  
process for preparing for a tough conversation? How do you understand yourself? And then get ready to have that conversation?

Wen Hsu  23:20  
Mm hmm. Great, great questions. I have so many. Throughout my tech career, um, the I think the biggest one is to understand where, where you're coming from, where are you? What you want to convey, right? So I have a pretty tough conversation with a direct report where I really feel like we just don't see eye to eye to each other, even when we I really do my best to understand her. And in that sense, like some of the conversations very easy to be like misinterpreted, right? If we don't, we cannot be on the same page. Right. And in that sense, is really a lot of openness, and vulnerability. And which is why I say it's very important to know where where you're coming from, because I'm coming from a place where I'm your manager is my job to give you feedback like this. Right? And I understand maybe we're not on grade footing, but I do this because I care about you, I want you to grow. Right. I know the tension that you feel I feel that too, but it's in my best interests to help you grow. So are you willing and open to have the conversation with me? Here's what I see. Fact. And I don't like the conversation. Stop. Going on from there. But I think that the first thing is to really, like, settle in. Understand, how do you really want to show up in that situation? So, like you don't get hydrated, you have clear understanding of what's the objective that you want to achieve there. Thank you.

James Dong  25:25  
So the question, next question from Polly is when people sit down, when you can find what's happening and work on it, that's great. But everyone wants to get better. What tips? Would you have to keep going with a one sided relationship?

Wen Hsu  25:43  
One sided relationship? What does that mean, poly? Poly here? Sorry, I'm just having no problem.

Unknown Speaker  25:54  
I just had a misspelling there. So I know that not everyone wants to get better. So you know, relationship has both sides. So what happens when it's only one side tried to get things better? And the other one laughs? And what tips would you give to give his one sided relationship? Sorry,

Wen Hsu  26:09  
no problem. Thank you for the context. It is helpful. That's why I put it in the last point that no deal is functies is an option to and I say that because like you said, if it's one sided relationship, and you keep trying and trying and nothing come across, right? In that sense, we're all adults here. Like, why are we wasting our time? Right? So in a way, I would really have an open conversation and just with the other party and say, Hey, I sense that I have been trying to reach you and get close to you, in many, many situations, and I don't feel like you're getting it and what, what's wrong here? Right, and really get into that conversation. But if you know, you decided it's not worth it. You know, it's not for you. That's totally fine. Right? We can find maybe different person to do it, you know, we can change jobs we can in your relationship, for example. Yeah, so so that would be why why would do? Yeah. The I think the key there is not to. Alright, what's not working for you? If you keep trying? Thank you.

Lauren Peate  27:38  
Can you say a little bit more just about that last point, the key is not to over, over? Was that over focus on what's not working?

Wen Hsu  27:46  
Not to tolerate? Tolerate? Yes. Yeah.

Lauren Peate  27:49  
That makes sense. Yeah. And I

Wen Hsu  27:51  
think especially if we bring you back to like a team, you know, conflicts, Team relationships. Oftentimes, I find it's even more crucial, right to really point out what's not working if we want to be the trustee and high functional team. Yeah. Great point.

Lauren Peate  28:14  
Well, thank you so much. That's all the time we have for questions. I'm sure we could keep going. So thank you. Thank you, and thanks to everyone for bringing questions. And so now we're gonna shift modes, but you know, more discussion to come. So this is the part where you get to there's other things you wanted to discuss maybe situations that are live for you.

Transcribed by

James Dong
James Dong
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