Commit to Conflict: Go Ahead and Clash

Yes or No

When we work with leadership teams, we push them hard to engage in more conflict. Not the destructive, mean-spirited type, but the productive type where people are focused on the few but consequential issues. We have learned that without productive conflict, team members nod their heads in false agreement and then conduct the real meeting after the meeting.

And you know what happens afterward…

… decisions get revisited over and over again.

If you read any of my recent posts about the behavioral tendencies that will derail your career, conflict avoidance is near the top. You will get promoted to your level of incompetence if you aren’t able to develop the skills to overcome your conflict avoidance tendencies.

When we work one on one with leaders in our executive coaching engagements, it’s not uncommon for us to see people at two different ends of the conflict spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum is the passive conflict style, where leaders are overly agreeable on the surface, but let things simmer underneath. They are consumed with maintaining relationships and as a result avoid difficult conversations. However, seeking artificial harmony isn’t the solution.

On the other side of the spectrum, we often see leaders who are overly concerned about giving up control. They consciously or unconsciously seek a win-lose outcome and can come across as critical and arrogant. As a result, they often shut down conversation–others back off out of fear or from knowing that the leader isn’t going to listen to their perspective anyway. Moving forward without alignment isn’t the solution either.

Conflict avoidance can always be linked to worsening business results (and there’s no hyperbole in that sentence). When leaders avoid a difficult conversation, they are almost always tolerating something they shouldn’t (usually poor performance). When leaders act in an overly aggressive manner, they shut down conversation and it takes them longer to get what they truly want (results) as others fail to commit or hide their true opinions.

So, how can you remain in conversation and more effectively navigate conflict? Here are 4 steps to increase your conflict effectiveness.

Step 1: Reframe How You See Conflict

The first step toward becoming more effective in conflict is to uncover what you believe about conflict. For many, it’s seen as destructive, critical or problematic. If you experience conflict from a negative orientation, it’s not hard to imagine the resulting behavior.

Uncovering your limiting mindsets and beliefs about conflict is the first step to becoming conflict savvy. If you see conflict as simply a difference in opinion and an opportunity to generate new ideas, everything changes. Think about what could become possible as you begin to engage in new and meaningful conversations.

Step 2: Know What Triggers Unproductive Conflict

The next step to becoming more effective in conflict is to know what actually causes, or triggers, a conflict reaction. According to Marshall Goldsmith, author of Triggers, a behavioral trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior. Triggers might be obvious or subtle. They might be expected or unexpected. And, they might even be productive or destructive. Keep a log of what triggers you during the day by answering the following questions:

What are the triggers in your environment that spark an unproductive response to conflict?

What did you feel internally (i.e., how did your body respond physiologically)?

How did you react externally (i.e., what did others see)?

Step 3: Become Aware of Your Automatic Response in Conflict

People respond differently in conflict. Our personality style, culture and family upbringing are just a few factors that influence our behaviors in conflict. I grew up in New England, the northeast part of the United States, in an Italian, Catholic family with three other brothers. Conflict for me was often coated in passive aggressiveness. I didn’t engage in many direct, honest and respectful conversations about how I saw things differently. But others have different responses. Some people tend to approach conflict from a perspective where straightforward and direct conversations are the norm and debating is acceptable. Others just want to be heard, where verbalizing emotions  and showing passion are normal. Maybe you let things simmer under the surface and become overly agreeable and don’t assert your voice. Or perhaps you overpower others with logic, focusing so much on the facts that you become defensive or critical.

If we want to become more effective at having difficult conversations, you have to become aware of how you naturally and automatically respond. And you have to understand when those natural responses are productive or destructive.

And our natural responses usually happen more frequently under stress or time constraints.

Step 4: Adapt to Be More Effective

The last step in becoming more effective in conflict is to be able to, in the moment, recognize that you are being triggered and then pause to adapt that destructive response to a productive one. Most people can look back after an interaction is completed or a meeting is over and assess how they interacted. Really effective people and leaders can do that in the moment.

Here are a few actions to adapting in the moment.

  1. Stop and pause. Buy some time by asking a question, seeking clarification or simply saying, “Tell me more…”
  2. Reframe how you are responding in the moment. Instead of making assumptions about what others are saying or how they are reacting, recognize your negative or derailing thoughts and ask yourself, “Is what I believe about this situation actually true?” The question, “Is this true?”, is the first step in Byron Katie’s process called The Work and  outlined in many of her books. Byron Katie says that all the suffering that goes on inside our minds is not reality. It’s just a story with which we torture ourselves. Asking “Is this true?” will help you reframe a thought to keep you engaged in a conversation longer. For example, if your automatic thought about how someone is responding in a meeting is that they don’t care or they aren’t engaged, you could reframe it to they are having a stressful day and thinking how you could support them.
  3. Respond more productively from your new reframed perspective. If you have a difference of opinion, instead of saying, “You are wrong” say, “I see it differently.” If your power style is to naturally advocate for your position, don’t forget to inquire about the other person’s perspective. And, in the end, seek opportunities to find commonalities in your perspectives. Where do your ideas actually overlap?

What’s Next?

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace (and at home too)! How you respond is your choice.

If you, your team and/or your leaders want to encourage and allow for more productive conflict, let us know. We can help. Depending on your needs, our workshop or coaching programs on healthy conflict might be the right solution.