The five essential steps to resolving conflict and taming Tigers (before you get eaten)

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

We all have them – they’re angry, they disagree, maybe won’t even talk with us. They’re Tigers.

Tigers on the savannah have two objectives: to eat and not be eaten. Tigers at work and in your life have the same objective. That makes them really, really, really, really hard to get along with. In a moment I’m going to show you how to tame a Tiger…..but before we get to that, a warning.


In my neck of the woods (Western Canada), we have bears. And the first thing you learn in bear country is: don’t run from the damn bear!! Why? Because if you run the bear sees only one of three things: breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Bad bear.

Back to my metaphor. It’s no different with Tigers in your life: run away and get eaten. They might not physically come after you, but you will be distracted, angry, blaming, pissed, and otherwise “eaten”.

YOU HAVE A PINCHpiss off the tiger

When my employee forgets to send a client their contract, I have a pinch. A pinch is the source of my conflict and it always starts from the same place. I have an unmet expectation. This is important: The employee DOES NOT have an attitude problem. Something happened (or didn’t happen) that did’t meet my expectations – that’s the pinch.

The golden rule with Tigers is this: don’t piss off the Tiger. A defensive Tiger is not pretty. It will lie, argue, manufacture, twist, obfuscate, or otherwise
manipulate the truth to avoid being wrong. Tigers like to defend their ass. Tell them they wronged you, or impacted someone else and watch their claws come out. Congratulations, you have a fight.

Before facing a Tiger it’s important to decide what pinch you’re going to talk about. The best pinch to talk about is: specific, recent, and a behaviour (not attitude, way of thinking, style, or anything else subjective). Here are some examples:

What you don’t want to say                                       A better version

“You are always doing this to me!”                      “Today you didn’t respond to my email”

“When you said that, you upset people”             “When you said that, I was upset”

“I can’t believe how stubborn you are!”              “When I hear you say that, I feel frustrated”


When I teach my Facing the Tiger seminar (hat tip to my friend Dr. John Scherer for this model) I remind audiences they have three choices:

  1. turn and face the tiger,
  2. let the Pinch go completely (see post “Before you put your foot in your mouth, count to three“), or
  3. seek help (your HR department, counselling, colleague).

If you choose door #1 (Face the Tiger), there is an elegant way to get your conversation off to a good start. Put a different way – don’t do this and you’re if you choosescrewed.

Here it is: five steps to an effective conversation with a Tiger (please note it cleverly spells “TIGER”. Thank you).

TELL – the tiger what happened. Be very careful: this is not about blame, or being right – you’re on safe ground if you simply report on facts.

IMPACT – using an “I” sentence, tell the Tiger how you feel about what happened (again, no blame).

GROW – use open-ended questions to explore what their intention is. Don’t overly focus on the Pinch – you want to grow the relationship by understanding the Tiger’s intentions better.

ENCOURAGE – a conversation about mutual purpose: what do you both want? Do you need to work together? Do you want this marriage to work?

RESOLVE – summarize what you understand to be true. Does someone need to react, speak up, avoid, or otherwise act differently next time? Or, maybe you need to agree to disagree?

Here are three sample starters that will help get you into the full meal:

“John, when you were 15 minutes late to the meeting this morning I was worried. We have a lot to cover and I’m wondering what’s up?”

“Joanna, I just heard from our client. They’re still waiting for your response. I’m worried about this. Can you explain what happened?”

“Sonia, I sent you an email yesterday saying I really needed your input about the new proposal. I haven’t seen a reply and I’m frustrated. Can you tell me what’s going on?”


Face the Tiger is not for the light-hearted – avoidance is easier. I find a little mental preparation goes along way to creating success, or, in the toughest conversations, survival.

A question that serves me well is: how do I want this to end? It’s no different than the last minutes before I step on stage for a keynote. When I focus on how I want a speech, or conversation with a Tiger, to end, I’m more relaxed and better prepared to recover from inevitable conversation detours.


A timeless tip from the bible of conflict resolution, Getting to Yes!, by Fisher and Ury, is to “be hard on the problem, not the person.” 

Position the Pinch as a third person, and the microscope comes off the Tiger. Now, both of you can turn to face the Pinch together. It can sound like this:

“It seems we both have a problem. How do you think we can solve this?”

“I know we both want what is best for the client. What can we do so this doesn’t happen again?”

“I know we’re all crazy busy right now. And I need to get this done. How do you think we can make that happen?”


Tiger conversations are all about understanding intentions, not attacking positions. In a Pinch, my position might be I’m right. But, my intention is to get more respect, or feel understood.

When you seek first to understand by leaning in, asking great questions, and genuinely expressing deep interest, you can get closer to the coals that fuel the fire. My wife might be upset I was late picking up a daughter, but her intention is to regain trust in me – very different topics.

At work, a co-worker might challenge every idea, but their intention is to improve quality. It’s like your car: fixate on an irritating noise and you might forget it’s been six months since you had it serviced. 


I have good news! When you face a Tiger, it always gets better. Really, you might be thinking, how could it possibly get better if my Tiger refuses to when you face the tigeragree? Or, what if my Tiger gets defensive and fights back?

Sure, it’s uncomfortable – talking about hockey and the weather is always easier. By taking the path least travelled and facing the Tiger, you win in two ways:

1. Now you really know the Tiger’s position. They’re interested in working this out – great! Plan a second conversation. They’re so entrenched there’s little hope of resolution – great! Now you know it’s time to move on. You might not agree, or even like, what the Tiger has to say, but at least now you know.

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow. William Blake, A Poison Tree 1794

2. You worry less. Worry, doubt, and fear are big distractions. They are also sources of stress you don’t need. When you avoid the Tiger, it eats you. Should I talk with him? Will she still be mad? What if it gets worse? When you face a Tiger you remove doubt and worry – that’s healthy. 

That brings me to my final thought.


Tigers have teeth. They like to be right. They sometimes play dirty.  And you might have to walk away. 

You followed the model, did everything right, but, despite best efforts, you’re still looking at bared teeth and claws. Today might not be the today. Be satisfied you said your piece and (hopefully) were heard. Changing someone isn’t your job. Maybe time will heal. And maybe not.

Your job is to say what happened, be clear about the impact on you, stay away from blame, and be prepared to walk. 


This post shares highlights from my six-hour seminar, Facing the Tiger, squeezed into 1,300+ words. Despite it’s brevity, I truly hope it serves you.

As I write this I’m recognizing my own failings with Tigers in my life (I’ve done my share of running away). I’m also reminded how important this lesson is. As random and unpredictable as humans are, sometimes a model here, or technique there, can move an impassive situation into motion again. That’s a good thing.

The rule I try to live by with Tigers in my life is simple: when in doubt, do something (don’t just worry about it).

Good luck with the Tigers in your life.