December 11, 2020

Conflict is a natural part of any relationship. Disagreements can arise. Experiences may contrast. Stories and opinions abound. When managed improperly, conflicts may challenge team dynamics, cause emotional upset and dysfunction, give rise to blame and criticism and erode trust. When we learn to navigate conflict, it becomes one of the most valuable tools available to us. In fact, without it we can easily decline into stagnation or worse, as we perpetuate a myopic and self-serving perspective that fails to leverage the advantage that a diverse team can provide.

Before we get into strategies for dealing with conflict let’s refine our focus. Above all else we must distinguish between “disagreement” and “attack.” Parties who may disagree over an approach or outcome have the ability to find resolution through emotional intelligence, dialogue, debate and creative problem solving. When conflict generates a psychologically unsafe environment that threatens someone with physical or emotional harm or embarrassment, the conflict is no longer productive. Emotions flare and survival instincts flood our brains with hormones that distract and confuse. We lose our ability to think rationally and creatively. We become emotionally hijacked.

Conflict, at its most productive, is a means of open, honest and vulnerable communication foundationally rooted in trust and the pursuit of objective, factual information that allows for effective problem solving. When we can set our self-interest aside; when we step out from behind our ego and truly work for the greater good of the relationship, team or company, we can find a wealth of resources, solutions and rewards too often buried by fear and cowardice.

In Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, conflict is an important contributor in reducing ambiguity as we work toward agreement and commitments. At its core, conflict is about “being heard” as a participating contributor. And while we don't typically require that our ideas are always adopted, everyone wants to feel heard. A great facilitator will pull opinion into the discussion and never let participants languish on the sidelines.

Human beings are wonderful storytellers. However, we see the world through senses with limited perceptions and seek meaning from brains evolved by thousands of years of survival. Our memories rationalize, fabricate and justify our actions to support our beliefs while careful not to expose us to unforeseen risks in a future we desperately try to predict.

These dynamics show up in everything we do, including how we conflict. When threatened we fight or we flee, triggering a host of physical and emotional responses. John Gottman, with the Gottman institute, describes how threat can trigger a defense or deflection response in any relationship. If persistent, the threat will turn to contempt and devolve into failure. In fact, contempt is one of the greatest predictors of divorce.

Gottman suggests we can avoid these problems with four strategies:

  1. Make Requests: Address the specific behaviors without blame or criticism. Speak using “I” statements to convey emotion or needs. 
  2. Accept Responsibility: Own your part in creating the problem or conflict. Focus on the problem without attacking.
  3. Appreciate and Respect: Identify what you value in the person even if you disagree. Work to understand their perspective and validate their point of view.
  4. Self-Soothe and Re-engage: Practice good emotional hygiene. When you feel yourself getting too emotional, take a 20 minute break to cool off and get perspective.

Gottman’s work is fundamental to great conflict and an important skill set for any emerging leader.

I have never experienced the level of conflict that exists in our country today. It is a time of strong beliefs, emotionalized fears and powerful stories. I hope that, in some small way, through my thoughts you will find conflict to be a productive tool in both your personal and professional lives and not the destructive force it can easily become when misunderstood. We have the ability to empathize and the compassion to seek understanding in everything we do. Productive conflict is an important path to discovery and something every leader must learn to master.