Why are we still so afraid of conflict? Why do we assume the mere presence of conflict is always negative?
When it comes to addressing conflict, there is an immediate assumption that the conversation/interaction will go poorly and possibly lead to something much worse.
Years ago, we used to rate a successful marriage by how little a couple fought. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a story about a husband and wife who had been married for forty years and how they “never had a fight.” The statement may or may not have been entirely accurate, but it gave the impression that for a marriage to be effective that conflict couldn’t or shouldn’t be a part of it.
Recent research paints a different story. Today, couples who learn how to have productive conflict are more likely to stay married longer than those who don’t. Organizations and leaders should take a similar page from the playbook.
It isn’t that conflict in and of itself is bad, it’s the negative messaging and reactive behavior that drives this misguided narrative. The more that leaders express their frustration over conflict and subsequently choose to avoid it, the louder the message they send to the attentive eyes and ears of employees. In the end, any attempt to view the conflict in a different light is destroyed.
Additionally, because so many leaders tend to avoid conflict until things essentially “blow up” and force them to address it, they typically do so in a heightened emotional state. This approach to resolution can lead to accusatory or judgmental statements, as well as the need to immediately defend oneself.
Yet, when leaders portray conflict as healthy and normal, the culture begins to change. Remaining calm in the face of conflict can show employees that it is possible for a rational discussion to take place despite the circumstances. Furthermore, leaders who keep the focus on the conflict itself as opposed to assigning blame or behavior to others, are more likely keep the experience positive and not ignite emotional defensiveness.
While much of conflict resolution is essentially reactionary, we submit that there are opportunities to be proactive. One way is to set a healthy tone early and to prepare your team for inevitable conflict. Striving for a culture which is completely free of conflict simply isn’t feasible.
Another way is to establish guidelines for how the team will approach a conflict when one occurs. This could be agreeing to enter into discussion with an open or curious mind. It could be ensuring that all parties will do their best to remain calm, not become defensive, and not talk over one another. The more you discuss what you’ll do if conflict happens, the better prepared you’ll be when it does.
Conflict doesn’t have to be something that generates fear, anxiety and anger. It can be something that leads to better discussion, increased emotional intelligence, and enhanced problem solving. The process will not be absent of emotion, but it is possible to pause, process through those emotions, and engage others with positive intent and results.