Conflict at your workplace is unavoidable. It will happen. People will disagree: Everyone won’t see eye to eye on a budget estimate. There will be a product feature that divides opinions. The coffee brand served at your office will not be everyone’s favorite.
Conflict is not a negative thing or a thing to be afraid of. First of all, it’s bound to happen. Second, it can move your organization forward. Conflict forces us to listen, open our eyes to new ideas, and vocalize real problems.
But our way of dealing with conflict can be good or bad–productive or unproductive. And none of us are perfect. While we can be skillful with some areas of conflict and communication, we will fall short with others.
There are also ways of communicating that come more naturally for us. This is stuff that's part of our personality. Or stuff that we carry with us from our childhood homes, personal relationships, and cultural contexts.
Conflict avoidant vs. conflict seeking
To simplify things, your default way of dealing with conflict can be considered as conflict avoidant or conflict seeking. Instinctively, you either hide from conflict or you seek it out. Neither is better than the other but in the extreme, they are both unhealthy.
I have heard these two types of conflict styles compared to battle tactics: you either build a bunker and hide from the enemy or you jump into a tank and charge the enemy position.
The problem with these kind of tactics is that you are preparing for a war where there are winners and losers. You are not preparing for a journey where everyone will better off in the end.
By default, I personally seek out conflict. When a conflict suddenly emerges I usually charge towards it rather than run away from it. This means that from my side, poor conflict resolution is often caused by over-aggressive communication. I push too hard instead of calming down and really listening what the other person has to say.
Being present in conflict
Even though you might be aware of what’s your conflict style, you won’t automatically learn how to avoid unproductive communication. This is because with conflict comes feelings and emotional responses. Feelings make it harder for us to control ourselves. We get an urge to either shut down or attack.
Instead of denying your feelings, you should acknowledge their existence. After that, try to dig a little deeper and articulate your feelings for yourself. Try your best to be honest. Do you have a need to be right or a need to be seen by the other party? Are you afraid that the other party doesn’t care about the issue as much as you do?
If you know your default conflict style and you are able to identify your feelings, perhaps it will be easier for you to prepare yourself for situations where conflict might arise.
This is a hack from author and business thinker Nilofer Merchant that I want to give a try. It’s taken from Merchant’s article about the importance of listening when creating change. It's a practice you can do when preparing for meetings, workshops or any other events:
Find an index card or sheet of paper (a paper napkin will also do). On one side, write key ideas that could be useful for you to share. […] On the other side, brainstorm questions you want to ask and things you hope to learn.
This practice forces you to make a physical act to acknowledge that it’s at least as equally important for you to listen than it is to talk.
It’s not important if you don’t get to ask the questions as they are written down. What’s more important is that you have primed yourself for curiosity and listening. You have primed yourself for a journey, not for a war.
Are you conflict avoidant or conflict seeking? What can you do to become better at conflict resolution?