by Scott Cochrane
Closed in the Executive Committee meeting room, Jim and Ron found themselves head-to-head, locked in a crucial disagreement over how to take the business forward given the latest financial results and the threat of a full blown strike at the factory. The room had become a war zone on one side of the table, and a scattering of quiet observers on the other. A couple of the observers even seemed completely detached as they studied their smartphones for the latest email…
Conflict shows up when what we want or think clashes with what someone else wants or thinks. Our primal instincts get threatened, and we try to protect our territory—our version of what is right and wrong, our opinion about what should happen next or our sense of entitlement to get what we want.
Because conflict taps into those deep instincts, it can sometimes feel like a personal attack. Many times affected by how situations were handled in our family of origin, our default response to conflict may be to fight, flee or hide.
Although those responses may come naturally to us, they are in fact quite uncomfortable in most cases. And so, we may inadvertently fall into the trap of avoiding conflict all together. This “avoiding”, albeit a passive behavior, can still be a highly destructive response to conflict. We may imply agreement to something we don’t want to do, give up something we want or believe in, limit the validity of decisions, dampen team creativity, or stall implementation, all of which ultimately have a negative effect results.
The Benefits of Conflict
Conflict may feel uncomfortable but it can be positive when handled in a constructive manner. Let’s remember, conflict is nothing more than a differing of ideas or opinions on the same subject. It does not have to mean something ugly or a fight. In fact, when conflict is taken forward in a proactively constructive manner it can be very rewarding to both to the organization and the individuals involved
Research has shown that improved creativity and innovation can be linked to the effective use of conflict, especially so in situations that involve novel, non-routine issues. Decision quality is greatly improved when ideas are rigorously vetted and challenged. Flaws that might have been missed if people were to avoid debating issues are found, and thus, optimal solutions become more accessible. When people have taken part in this debate, they are more likely to support the implementation of a particular solution even though it might not have been their initial preferred choice. Additionally, when people are able to robustly debate issues, one idea can lead to another and generate new understandings that may have otherwise been missed.
Changing our default response to conflict takes awareness and practice. When we embrace conflict, we accept the situation for what it is. We’re able to detach from it emotionally. Instead of tapping into our primal instincts, we can access our “higher” self; our caring, wise, intuitive side. That part of us can usually find a win-win solution, a meaningful learning or a hidden opportunity in even the most challenging situations.
The more we acknowledge and face conflict in a healthy way, the more comfortable we become with it. Some of the following tips on constructive responses to conflict may help:
Tips for Embracing Conflict
- Perspective Taking – Putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand that person’s point of view.
- Creating Solutions – Brainstorming with the other person, asking questions, and trying to create solutions to the problem.
- Expressing Emotions – Talking honestly with the other person and expressing your thoughts and feelings.
- Reaching Out – Reaching out to the other person, making the first move, and trying to move forward.
- Reflective Thinking – Analyzing the situation, weighing the pros and cons, and thinking about the best response.
- Delay Responding – Waiting things out, letting matters settle down, or taking a “time out” when emotions are running high.
- Adapting – Staying flexible, and trying to make the best of the situation.
Further information on how you and/or your organization can benefit by managing conflict more effectively, can be obtained by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also find the following books to be helpful: