business colleagues talking in office business colleagues talking in office

Separating the People from the Problem

By Frank Croswell

We all experience situations at work where conflict arises, potentially putting relationships at risk. The key to resolving such conflicts is to be hard on the problem while being soft on the people involved. Let me share an example that illustrates the value of this stance.

A consultant selling software in the corporate market encounters failure on the customer’s part to comply with the licensing agreement; specifically, the customer is using more software applications than are licensed. If this situation is not managed well, conflict is inevitable, and personal accusations and apportioning of blame will sour the relationship. The result? Lost business due to non-renewal of existing licenses, reduction or loss of future sales opportunities with this customer, and in extreme cases, litigation.

The consultant in this example sets in motion a clear process that ensures compliance, whilst consciously taking measures to protect the customer relationship. By focusing on solving the problem versus stepping into a blame game, the consultant can understand what’s behind the action and create alternative solutions that benefit both the customer and the consultant.

This approach of being “hard on the problem and soft on the people” goes a long way to diffuse difficult scenarios. If you find yourself in a similar situation, consider using an approach that turns face-to-face confrontation into side-by-side problem solving:

  • Approach negotiations as opportunities to strengthen your business relationships.
  • Perceive the goal as a mutually acceptable outcome, and avoid bargaining – where you win, and the other party loses.
  • Take time to clarify the interests of each party, circumventing any potential barriers to reaching an agreement.
  • Put emotions aside and focus attention on being hard on the problem, but soft on the people.

Taking these steps can lead to more productive discussions, enabling you to establish mutually successful business agreements that can protect – and even strengthen – your customer relationships.

Can you recall a time when you found it difficult to separate the people from the problem at work? What happened, and what effect did it have on your relationships?

These are our thoughts… What do you think?


Frank Croswell

Frank started his career in a family owned fashion-retailing business, where he managed a chain of thirteen stores. When the business was sold to a large international company, Frank joined South Africa’s largest retail chain. While working for the group he held Senior Management positions in Manufacturing and Fashion Merchandising Divisions, before being appointed as the group’s Merchandising and Marketing Manager, responsible for the development of staff across 500 stores in South Africa. After a successful career in retailing, Frank spent 8 years’ in the Life Insurance Industry in a General Management position, with responsibility for the recruitment and development of a work force of over three thousand people.

For the past 16 years’ Frank, in his capacity as Managing Director of Wilson Learning SA, has consulted with major global companies and a wide range of South African organisations in numerous industry fields. He has facilitated programs and workshops in 37 countries. Frank specializes in linking human performance improvement to organizational strategies.