Few people want to talk about conflict, let alone engage in conflict. Our natural tendency is to shy away from conflict and view it as a bad thing. In fact, over 85% of the population is inherently wired to avoid conflict at all costs. The rest of us tend to scare the few brave souls away with our often overt and antagonistic approach.
Conflict is not inherently a bad thing. Unhealthy conflict is damaging and unproductive, but healthy conflict can create new ideas, forge stronger bonds, and create greater success. Conflict in Latin means to “strike together.” Conflict produces good and necessary things like heat, fire, energy.
Conflict over opposing ideas when handled well can result in positive growth, increased productivity, and stronger bonds in personal and professional relationships. In fact, conflict is essential to a good story; without conflict our favorite stories would be bland and boring. Think about the stories that engage us- Luke Skywalker and his battle over evil in Darth Vader, or Katniss Evergreen, fighting to end enslavement by the Capitol; every captivating story takes us through conflict as part of the hero’s journey.
We cheer on these heroes, applaud their bravery, but then shrink from engaging when conflict comes into our life. Embracing conflict as part of growth and learning to handle it effectively is a necessary skill for success in life, business, and relationships.
Conflict feels threatening and risky because it is emotionally charged. Conflict occurs when we are invested in our individual viewpoints. The outcome matters and often the preferred resolutions are contradictory.
We are wired with a fight or flight responses when we feel threatened. Neither option is effective in handling conflict. Fighting is viewed as aggressive and can further exacerbate the situation. Avoidance is not an effective strategy for dealing with conflict, yet it is far too often the preferred method. The third option is to develop skills to engage in healthy and productive conflict.
Three skills to help handle conflict more effectively are to engage in constructive conversation, exchange points of view, employ win-win language and mindset.
Engage in Constructive Conversation:
With our emotions engaged, we feel the need to defend or protect ourselves, and it is easy to go on the offensive. We resort to language of accusation: “You said,” “You did,” “You didn’t.” – rather than sharing our thoughts and feelings constructively. Language such as: “I feel, I want, I thought…” is less argumentative and far more productive in creating understanding.
Constructive conversation lowers the intensity of the conflict because we are not accusing the other person and thus they can remain engaged, rather than resort to defending themselves from what often feels like an unwarranted attack.
Exchange Points of View:
When I am feeling hurt, disappointed, frustrated, it is very difficult to see anything by my thoughts, feelings, and the legal pad of data proving I am right and the other person is wrong! However, this defensive posture is totally ineffective. Defensiveness derails a conversation, blocks understanding and prevents resolution.
The last thing I want to do is see the issue from the other person’s point of view. Yet this is one of the most effective ways to create understanding. An intentional decision to stand in their shoes, make their argument, shift my mindset to articulate their alternative viewpoint radically alters the nature of the conflict.
Seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view, doesn’t mean we agree with them or have abandoned our position. It does mean we can communicate our understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This shift often reduces the intensity of the conflict, and allows both parties to see new options or solutions. The ability to hear and understand one another is key to good communication and healthy conflict.
Employ win-win mindset.
A win-win mindset seeks a good result for everyone involved, rather than an either/or conclusion. Often this is done by embracing a third option rather than choosing one of two opposing positions. This mindset encourages creative solutions and alternatives that wouldn’t occur without embracing healthy conflict. Sometimes, it is simply giving everyone the chance to be heard and validating their feelings. Whenever you can move the conflict from, “I win, you lose” to “we both win” conflict becomes a productive tool for growth.
Embracing the value of healthy conflict and equipping yourself with tools to engage wisely will dramatically improve your personal and professional relationships. Additionally, conflict, done well, is often the source of new ideas, advancements, and growth because it draws on the synergy of authentic collaboration in a safe and open environment.
Next time you feel a fight or flight response to impending conflict, pause and use these 3 skills to effectively engage in healthy and productive conflict.
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