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Addressing Your Fear of Conflict

I thought that this topic might be timely, in part because I have had an unusually high number of conversations recently with clients, friends, family members, and others regarding handling conflict and having difficult conversations. A few years ago, we posted a blog entitled “Is All Conflict Destructive?” in which we discussed healthy conflict (yes, there is such a thing!) and how to encourage it. Much has been written about conflict in the workplace (and beyond) and I especially like a few recent articles by Don Tinney and Rene Boer at EOS Worldwide. Tinney writes that “Conflict in the workplace is risky. It makes us uncomfortable, tense and our emotions can flare. But what should we expect from passionate teammates who are all fighting for outcomes that matter a lot? When we work with intelligent, creative, passionate people, we’re bound to have occasions when we see things differently. Conflict in the workplace is not only unavoidable in a growing, healthy organization, but it’s also essential!”

It can be damaging at work and to the team when people are silent, passive, or lack engagement. Boer writes that some of the best meetings she has been in lately are the ones where people challenge one another. Where there’s debate and push-back and the discussions are heated; and where each person is actively engaged, putting the greater good of the organization ahead of personal agendas. Sometimes the feedback they give each other stings a little, but too often we seek harmony when we should be creating some conflict. We shouldn’t be afraid of some conflict, but embrace it. She believes that conflict creates clarity and, without clarity over the underlying issue, we’re at risk of making poor decisions.

Tinney believes that a team will never become its best without conflict, and that the best answer to almost every issue you face will be a composite of the creativity and knowledge of the various players on your team. He also provides five suggestions for healthier conflict in the workplace:

  • Face it. You’re not that smart. If you are human and you speak, you will say something stupid. It’s going to happen. Set your ego aside, share your thoughts freely and be equally open to considering thoughts from your teammates. None of us have all the answers, and if you do, you need to surround yourself with new people who are smarter than you. To get to the truly great answers, we need to collaborate and mix it up with some great, passionate fighters.
  • Welcome statements that are raw and less polished. Establish a “just say it” rule for your team. Propose something even when you know there may be significant flaws in your thinking. That’s okay. Someone has to be bold enough to put something on the table that the team can react to, refine, and perfect. Your proposal sets the stage for counter-proposals that shape a better solution. So just say it!
  • As soon as it becomes about you, your team is going to suffer. Self-interest leads to defensive, combative, destructive behavior, so all dialogue must keep the greater good of the whole team in constant view.
  • Attack the issue, never each other. Focus on resolving the root cause behind each issue. Even when the issue concerns someone’s behavior, identify the root cause behind the behavior and focus on resolving that.
  • Take a break. When you get stuck or tempers have flared and it seems like you’re at an impasse, step away from each other and the issue for a short time, cool down, consider everything you’ve heard and then come back to see if the answer comes to the surface. Sometimes it’s just a 10-minute break, sometimes a day or two. Just let it settle a while, and the answer will come.

It may not be easy, but it’s important to understand and appreciate that the benefit that comes from healthy conflict in the workplace is worth all the risk and personal discomfort. People should commit to participating in productive conflict to see how that produces a healthier, more prosperous team. Please let me know if you are struggling with conflict in the workplace or if you have found effective ways to deal with it.