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Conflict as friend, not foe: How to use conflict constructively

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We spend more than half our waking hours at work, so when work becomes stressful, it can have a disproportionate impact on our well-being. And when the cause of stress is conflict, it also affects our ability to do the work we care so much about. Unmanaged, conflict leads to lost productivity, disengagement and even physical ailments. Worse, it’s unavoidable: try to think of a relationship in which you’ve never had a disagreement. But conflict doesn’t have to be negative. Managed properly, conflict can be the signal of something new emerging in a relationship or team, and it can even be used to bolster work relationships.

When conflict arises at work, people typically have one of two reactions: withdrawal or combat. Sometimes withdrawal feels like taking the high road, but unresolved conflict only leads to resentment. And resentment has a way of bubbling up in expressions of anger, contempt or passive-aggression, leading to further conflict. Combat has the virtue of putting the conflict out in the open, but it is often an energy hog, drawing precious resources away from serving our clients. In both cases, the result is an atmosphere of tension and discord that makes it difficult to get work done. In the worst cases, the tension and discord bleed out into client interactions. There is, in fact, a better way to manage conflict. First, we need to look inside. Second, we need to find the common objective that will allow us to transcend our differences. Let’s look at each of these methods.

Conflict requires two people. So the first place to look, when faced with a conflict, is at oneself. Consider this: have you ever found yourself in an argument with someone, only to realize at the end that you actually agreed on most points but got caught up on a couple relatively minor sticking points? That often happens when we make assumptions about the other person’s motives. Sometimes people say exactly what we expect them to say – not because of their words, but because of how we understand them. For example, let’s say my co-worker and I need to allocate funds to our respective projects. If I assume that she wants to take the lion’s share for her project, everything she says will be interpreted through that lens. My defensiveness will likely put her on the defensive, and then we’ll be in a power struggle created by my own assumptions. A better way is to go into any conversation with an open mind – not making any assumptions about what the other person wants, but really listening to what is important to them. This may be challenging with people we’ve had difficulty with in the past, and that leads us to the second element of conflict management: our own emotions.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re at your best, when everything is running smoothly, you feel less concerned and more able to deal with disagreements and conflict? On the other hand, when you’ve had a poor night’s sleep, when you’ve been running all out for too long, the slightest disruption to your plans can feel overwhelming? If we can become more aware of our moment to moment emotional state, we can avoid many conflicts before they even begin. In fact, becoming aware of our feelings, and naming them, is one of the best ways to get that feeling under control. Practice self-awareness by spending a few moments, several times a day, just pausing to take a deep breath, and notice your own emotional state. If you are feeling anxious or stressed, do something to bring yourself back to your natural, healthy state. That could be taking a short walk, making a cup of tea, or talking to a friend.

Some conflicts, of course, are unavoidable. There are real differences in opinions, values, priorities and perspectives, and when these arise in areas we care about, it can be hard to see conflict as anything but destructive. However, conflict can also be a sign that something needs to change, that something new is emerging. And just as the butterfly emerging from its cocoon needs to struggle in order to gain the strength to fly, so can we struggle and then grow stronger, both in ourselves and in our relationships, from conflict.

The first step in facing conflict is to avoid the temptation to blame the other party. We usually have conflicts with people we have some kind of important relationship with – if they were complete strangers, we probably wouldn’t care enough to get pulled into the conflict. So preserving the relationship, or at least maintaining a working relationship, is important. But if we blame the other person, effectively making them the “bad guy,” then it’s nearly impossible to get any cooperation from that person. Instead, focus on the results you are both trying to achieve. For example, if you disagree with a co-worker about how to solve a client’s problem, first agree on the result you want for that client. Once you find that common ground, it will be easier to find a way to meet both of your needs – think “and,” not “or.” Very often, conflict arises because of different views on how to manage risk, and choosing one risk over another is usually not the ideal solution. Thinking “and” can help us reach solutions that minimize more than one risk.

At the extreme, conflict can sometimes get personal. If someone maligns our character, it’s very hard not to get defensive. As we’ve seen, defensiveness just breeds more conflict, so it’s best to resist that temptation. A better way is to acknowledge the grain of truth in what the other person has said. If only 2% of what that person said was true, what would that be? For instance, if someone tells me I’m unreliable, rather than get angry, I should pause and consider my interactions with that person. Although I may take pride in my reliability, I may realize that in the last few meetings I had scheduled with this person, I had to cancel at the last minute for reasons that were outside my control. So from that person’s perspective, I looked unreliable. A better way to respond would be to acknowledge the behaviour that led to the accusation of unreliability: “I can see why you might say that after I had to cancel the last two meetings we set up.” This opens the door to a much more constructive conversation, leads to greater mutual understanding, and it de-escalates the emotional intensity.

Although conflict is unavoidable, damaged relationships and stressful environments are not. If we can manage our own assumptions and emotions, we can work collaboratively with colleagues to arrive at solutions that build trust and lead to better results for ourselves and our clients. In fact, conflict is a sign of diversity – differences in opinion and perspective that can make our teams and relationships stronger. By focusing on what we have in common, and on the results we both want to achieve, we can reach new possibilities that we may never have imagined.

Anne Comer is a team effectiveness and culture change consultant who is passionate about guiding leaders and teams to create a healthy environment where people can thrive and enjoy the satisfaction of achieving strong and sustainable results. With over 25 years of experience in operations, human resources and education, she provides consulting services to a wide variety of organizations ranging from small nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies across many industries, in Canada and the US.

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