Conflict Can Be Good
How Can Conflict Be Good?
Good conflict sounds like an oxymoron to many people. How can conflict possibly be good? When it helps a team identify the best possible ideas, conflict can be good. When people know how to protect their relationships during the conflict, teams can achieve amazing levels of success.
Photo courtesy of www.sxc.hu
When Can Conflict Be Good?
Conflict really can be a good thing. Many of us don't like it, and few of us are comfortable with it. Some of us actually run from it.
Still, putting our emotional responses aside, conflict can be good if....
- We avoid mean spirited, personal attacks.
- We don't pursue artificial harmony by acting as if the conflict doesn't exist. (When we ignore conflict, it usually gets worse.)
- We focus on solving the problem that lead to the conflict and not on each person's "fault."
- We act in ways that preserve the relationship.
- The conflict hightlights relationship or other issues that, once addressed, can allow the relationship to achieve a higher level.
- We continue to respect each other even though we disagree.
- It creates the energy necessary to solve a problem.
- It opens the door to consider new ideas and new approaches for solving old problems.
The topic of interpersonal conflict creates two common responses.
- Some people see conflict as a bad thing. They see it as the death of a relationship. They see it as evil, and as something to be avoided at all cost.
- Other people see it as neither good nor bad. It's just something that happens in life that needs to be dealt with so that we can make progress.
I happen to fall in the first group by nature. I really do understand this perspective. It comes from our natural "fight or flight" response to perceived threats. So, the fear or avoidance of conflict is a perfectly natural perspective.
The key phrase in the previous paragraph is "perceived threat." Granted, some conflict situations present a real threat of physical harm, and fleeing from those situations is healthy. However, few of us really face a physical threat from most interpersonal conflicts - especially those in the workplace. Our fear comes from our perception of the situation and not from what is really happening when we disagree with others.
When we perceive a threat, our fight or flight response kicks-in, and we feel that familiar rush of adrenaline that captures our brains and triggers one of two common responses: avoidance and attack.
Avoidance comes from a desire to "keep the peace." This pespective happens to describe me. Looking back at some situations in my life, I now realize that this perspective comes more from a desire to avoid the discomfort that conflict can create than it does from a desire to preserve relationships and resolve issues. In effect, my desire to keep the peace is selfish. When I am overcome by this drive, I am acting to keep myself comfortable. I am not acting to build or protect a relationship. In fact, I am creating a false sense of peace rather than a true peace.
Most people can see that avoidance is a fear response, and they wonder why I say that attack is also a fear response. Many people ask, "Isn't an attack closer to the 'conflict is just part of life' response than it is to the 'conflict is bad response?'" In a word, no.
The attack response usually comes from a desire to protect ourselves. Since we don't need to protect ourselves unless we perceive a threat, attack comes from much the same fearful perception that creates avoidance. It has the same root: fear. It is just a different response to the same perception of threat.
Even though I entered my professional career with the "conflict is always bad" perspective, I now place myself in the "conflict is just part of life" perspective. With experience, study, and time; I have learned to see the value in skillfully managed conflict.
Properly handled, conflict can surface differences of opinion or approach that can create better solutions. Since I can't possibly know everything, listening to and working through conflicting viewpoints can make me, my team, and my life better.
Avoidance buries problems. Attack destroys relationships. Both come from the fear of a perceived threat. Both hurt organizations.
Addressing and resolving conflicts comes from the opposite of fear. It comes from faith and confidence. The faith and confidence that the conflict presents an opportunity to learn and grow. The faith and confidence that conflict can actually be a good thing.
Poll: What is your view of conflict? - Let me know your perspective
What is your view of conflict?
Video: Why Study Conflict?
Why Conflicts Go Bad
Conflicts often go badly because of poor communication skills. I once read the results of a survey that indicated one of the leading causes of conflicts escalating to violence was the inability to communicate effectively. I could not find that source again as I developed this lens. So, I am uncomfortable claiming the statistic as the absolute truth. However, it does make sense.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni makes the point that people don't have a need to get their way so much as they have a need to be heard and understood.
If we accept the premise that people need to be understood, then a feeling that we are not understood can trigger some pretty strong emotions. After all, a need, not a desire or wish, is going unfulfilled. Unfulfilled needs always create a strong emotional response (for example: hunger, thirst, sleep, etc.).
When we can't communicate our thoughts, feelings, and frustrations, we feel misunderstood. This feeling creates an emotional response in us that we probably communicate to the other person in our body language and tone. They sense our heightened emotional state, and they respond in kind.
(Our emotions generally take input from external sources - other people. I'll go into that more in another lens later. For now, let's just run with the idea.)
Now we have entered what Dan Dana, author of Managing Differences, calls the "retaliatory cycle." The retaliatory cylce leads to increasing levels of emotion and conflict. Since we have all experienced this situation, almost all of us fear it. It leads to frustration, anger, hurt feelings, broken relationships, and unresolved conflict.
Is it any wonder we fear, and therefore avoid or attack, when we sense a conflict coming on? We are simply trying to avoid the pain that we anticipate will come.
One of the keys to breaking this cycle starts with improving communication skills. Improved communication skills is not a silver bullet that will cure all conflicts. It is a huge step in the right direction.
I'll be sharing more tips to address this fear as I develop this lens. For now, take a look at the resources I have listed in the Books I Recommend section. These books offer some great insights for addressing the communication issues that can intensify conflict.
Sites I Recommend
- Principle Driven Consulting
- Resolving Conflict in Teams Blog
My old blog.
- The Table Group
Patrick Lencioni - I really respect his work.
- The Kevin Eikenberry Group
My friend and colleague, Kevin Eikenberry. He does great work.
- JJ Communications
My friend and colleague, Jean Brun. JJ is a master trainer in the DISC Model of Human Behavior and an expert in reading the unspoken, non-verbal message.
- The DISC Model of Human Behavior
A Squidoo lens that helps build understanding of different types of people.