Conflict Resolution

Focus on a Few Good Skills – What the NFL Teaches Us about Conflict Resolution

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Coach Tony Dungy has won more games than any other coach in NFL history. Before Dungy NFL games were a matter of psyching out one’s opponent. Those with the most complicated and surprising plays won.

But Dungy didn’t want his players to know a lot of plays. He wanted them to know a few plays and do them automatically. We can use the same strategy when we resolve conflict.

Dungy understood that in the heat of a game – just like in the heat of an argument – the key to success is having a few excellent options and executing them consistently. He taught his teams – initially the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, followed by the Indianapolis Colts – a handful of strategies, and drilled them again and again. The players focused on a few essential cues from the other team and responded to them instantly: where the other team lined up, where a defensive lineman’s toe was pointing. It took the Bucs four years of practice to become a winning team but the turnaround was so dramatic, the defense was named “Tampa 2”.

In conflict situations we can also learn from Dungy’s weakness: His teams buckled under pressure. In 2002 the Bucs lost in the playoffs and Dungy was fired, making him the only coach in the Buccaneers history to leave with a winning record. The Colts hired him a week later but in 2005, Indianapolis became the first team to begin a season 13-0 and not make it to the Super Bowl. Dungy could take a team out of the ashes and bring them to victory, but as the tension mounted, his teams crumbled.

The problem was faith. Under pressure, his players abandoned what he had taught them. They felt they needed to do something different, or that something special was required for this game. And his team would fall apart.

We have this problem when we’re trying to resolve conflict. We learn techniques that work. We use a few reliable strategies so that things don’t get complicated. But under pressure, we feel that something else is needed. We power up. Perhaps we yell. We get underhanded. Or we simply abandon a little bit of integrity. But when we do, we lose. And we tend to lose when things matter most.

Conversely, if we can hold on to the skills, even under stress, we can really impress the other person. That’s when our good habits are dramatically evident. They realize that this game is not about winning or losing. It’s about co-operating.

If you’re a Colts fan, you’ll know that in 2006, Dungy’s team finally won the Super Bowl. Ironically this happened just months after Dungy’s son died by suicide. In the midst of his grief, Dungy kept going. While the death affected the entire team, it also galvanized it. Players felt they owed something to Dungy. For the first time, they stuck to the plan. And they won.

In conflicts as in sports, those who succeed are steadfastly committed to using their skills even in highly charged situations. Trust your skills and use them especially when the going gets tough.


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Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learing

Mike is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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