Embrace Conflict and Make it Work for You!

Yelling at one another

Is This How You Imagine Conflict?

Life is full of conflict.

Conflicting goals, conflicting values, conflicting emotions.  How do you handle conflict in your life?  Do you meet it head on and press for your point of view?  Do you avoid it and try to smooth things over?  How do great leaders manage conflict, and what can you learn from them?

First of all, how do you understand the meaning of conflict? Understand that conflict is natural, unavoidable and can be the catalyst for creativity, change and even trust.  Great collaboration actually requires a certain amount of open conflict. With this in mind, you can begin to choose more productive ways to manage, and even embrace, conflict!

What exactly is conflict?  Conflict is a disagreement where there is a perceived threat to one’s positions, interests or needs.  When conflicts are productive, these perceived threats are openly discussed, considered and addressed to create win-win solutions, and to mitigate any real threats to either party.  Dysfunctional conflicts are when that perceived threat triggers strong emotions, and those emotions dictate the tone and direction of the conversation, or whether you avoid it altogether.

To make the most of conflict, you need to be ready to prioritize the relationship above your own fears and feelings of being threatened. Perhaps the most important step to take is to decide to engage in the conflict, and better understand the origins of the conflict.  Many of us, when we feel threatened, will tend to gloss over conflict, or avoid dealing with a person or situation, or even resign ourselves to an unfavorable outcome.  Whenever conflict does not come to the surface and get resolved, resentments grow, and the next conflict around that person, issue or project will carry the weight of the original unresolved conflict and become increasingly intractable.

We’ve talked about how to differentiate between positions and interests to create more room for common ground and identify potential win-win solutions in a previous post linked here.  To understand your own interests, think about what feels threatening in the current conflict.  What do you believe you stand to lose? What do you feel you must gain?  Most often, the source of conflict is in one of three areas:

  1. Lack of understanding.  This means you do not really understand the other party, or they you.  This is the easiest to resolve if you can just listen to one another long enough to hear the whole story and really understand where the other person is coming from.  This makes conflict less threatening and reduces interpersonal tension.
  2. Conflicting values.  This is where you and the other party do agree on the facts and the goals, but you disagree on the relative importance of different factors in making a decision and moving forward.  This is harder to identify, because we have to talk about what we are valuing or prioritizing in the process, but it allows us to make it less about judging each other for being “wrong” and more about resolving conflicting priorities in a way that allows everyone to feel respected.
  3. Conflicting personal goals or personal history.  This type of conflict is less common, but can be the result of the other two types of conflict going unresolved for long periods and building up a history of mistrust, resentment, or belief that the other person is selfish in their motives.  This type of conflict requires significant mutual effort to rebuild trust and relationship.

Once you understand your own feelings, and what is causing you to feel threatened, it’s time to understand the other side of things, and understand why the other party is also feeling threatened by the topic of conflict.  This is a great time to practice one of the most important leadership skills of all – listening.  The best leaders are great listeners, and can make others feel heard and get to the root of a conflict quickly.

If both parties’ concerns and interests in the conflict are in the open, you can start to seek common ground and build trust by carefully considering all interests and respecting the needs of everyone involved.  Even if the resolution does not make everyone happy, the act of truly listening and respecting other points of view will allow everyone to embrace the outcome without resentment.

The Keys to remember in Embracing Productive Conflict are:

  • Withhold judgment (no one is wholly right or wrong – listen to learn);
  • Cultivate curiosity (look for underlying needs and interests and ask great questions); and
  • Look for win-win solutions (respect the needs and interests of others).