Most executives tell me they hate conflict and run quickly from it. And if they can’t escape it, they report handling it poorly. After all, who likes tension?
I’d like to offer an alternate paradigm – how would you like to fall in love with conflict?
I can give you some compelling reasons why – and some tips on making the shift toward welcoming conflict as a growth opportunity.
Need some convincing?
Here is why you want to shift the way you think about and approach conflict.
Conflict will always be present.
I like to say, “Where there are two or more people gathered together, there will be conflict!”
Why? Varying perspectives, beliefs, convictions, agendas… This means you can’t run and hide forever, unless you choose to be a hermit.
Conflict is an opportunity to strengthen working relationships.
If handled well, separating issues from personalities, it can become a way that two opposing parties become a unified team solving a problem together.
Conflict opens doors to new and creative possibilities.
Ever heard someone say, “What’s the third good option?”
This means, can we move from “either, or” (your way or my way), to another solution that might give both of us what we need…that might solve the issue even better?”
How do you get to the point where you actually love conflict when you encounter it?
The tricky thing is most of us fear conflict until we learn how to handle it, and we tend to run to our own platform of emotional safety.
In order to move from fear to a state of openness, you will first want to recognize what conflict can do for you, your relationships, and potential outcomes.
Here are five tips to get you started so that you can truly begin to fall in love with conflict:
1. Begin to shift your personal views about what conflict is.
Begin recognizing that conflict can be an exciting opportunity for dialogue and reaching shared agreement around issues that are important to you and to solving problems.
Conflict is usually a simple combination of (1) two or more people, or different parts of the same person; (2) a disagreement over unresolved issues, process, outcomes, or facts; and (3) negative emotions around strong convictions or one’s opinion on said issue/process/facts.
There can be more variables to creating a conflict, but these three are all you need to get a conflict started. If you find yourself in conflict and can remember the anatomy of conflict above, it will allow you to take a deep breath as you begin to approach it.
2. Recognize that personal triggers around conflict may or may not be valid.
Each time a conflict arises, you probably get two triggers – an emotional one and a physical one.
When this happens, your mind makes up a story to support your bodily sensations and emotions, such as, “This is unpleasant and doesn’t feel good. Leave immediately.”
What you are experiencing is the safety mechanism your brain developed for you from an early age so that you feel safe. However, now that you are an adult, it’s time to re-examine this conditioning, because some of these triggers are no longer useful or valid.
For example, when you were small, you may have felt rejected or inappropriate for speaking up in at the dinner table. But now that you are older, not being able to speak up in groups or social settings may be debilitating for you.
So, as you move forward and experience uncomfortable sensations and emotions, ask yourself if these triggers are valid for the situation, or if you need to take a deep breath and re-examine what is happening.
3. Set the stage for collaboration with others in the conflict.
Change your language about conflict as it arises with others. When the air is tense, it’s helpful to remind yourself and others that this is actually a growth opportunity. Be a leader in setting this new framework with statements or phrases that include, “I’m feeling some tension, here. Can we talk together about the issue that’s stirring the pot for us?” Or, “I feel passionate about this, and it seems like you do, too. I think we can come up with a creative solution. Are you game to sit with me so we can work this out?”
Notice that I am avoiding any finger-pointing in these phrases. I am also using a lot of “we” phraseology – can “we” work this out, can “we” sit down together… By using this kind of language, you are implying that you are collaborative, on the same team. This is when great things can happen.
4. See pause points as growth opportunities.
Are you and the other person in the conflict stalled at a certain point in working things out?
Call this out, as though you are noticing an elephant in the room. When tension mounts, so can voices, platforms, and personal agendas.
On the other hand, when you are able to name the tension in the room, this allows the other person to relax a bit, as well. You might ask them if they would like some water or coffee, or to stretch their legs a bit. Get up and stretch yours. This will provide some regrouping of energy and emotion, so that when you come back together to sit and examine the matter at hand, you can do so more even-handedly. And handling things in this way is great growth.
5. Thank the other person for being willing to work things out with you.
At the beginning of your conversation together, and again after you have reached an outcome or conclusion, let the other party know that you appreciate their willingness to explore things together. You want to help them see that working things out with you is collaborative, even-handed, thoughtful, and respectful. You want to encourage them to come back next time so that the two of you can arrive at some great solutions together.
If you can begin to approach conflict with these five steps, you have not only set the stage to work things out, but to forge deeper, more meaningful relationships and greater outcomes.
Where do you feel you excel in conflict management? And where would you like to be stronger?
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.