“Get ready for a fight!” At least that’s what my lower brain was suggesting. I could feel the adrenaline rush. Another “stupid idea” had surfaced and it was time to pounce on it before somebody got hurt. Namely me.
But the words that followed from my boss at the time changed everything. He said something like “I realize this is different from what we had originally discussed so let me hear your thoughts on it and how we might look at it differently from what I have.Then maybe we can find an even better way to move forward.”
Immediately I had to put my verbal Glock back into its holster. It became like sitting in a different room having a different conversation altogether. In that moment I experienced for the first time a legitimate paradigm for handling conflict at work.
I find much too often conflict is avoided more often than it is embraced. Sometimes by turning away and sometimes by powering up. In doing so a leader forgoes the potential value conflict brings to an organization, team or family.
If we were to make a few small edits in the way we think about and handle conflict, we just might unlock a reserve of creativity and community that allows teams to flourish.
Here are five principles that can transform the way leaders and managers handle conflict. Practice and master these to keep conflict from mastering you.
Disagreement does not have to turn into conflict
Disagreements are inevitable as people work together with different perspectives and experiences. Effective leaders do not create sterile environments where disagreement is not allowed. If disagreement is taboo, differences are more likely to become conflictual. The result is a severely restrained capacity for innovation and problem solving. Use disagreement to elicit a curiosity about options, alternatives and perspectives that will likely refine the outcomes.
Conflict does not have to turn into offense
Conflict is experienced negatively when we feel personal offense in the handling of a matter. An important leadership capacity is the ability to minimize personal offense taken from the things that’s stand in opposition to our leadership. We have to develop thick skin. We need to mentor others in doing so as well.
Defensiveness seems to be a common strategy to conflict in the workplace. But it rarely produces good results. It’s usually best to allow offense to roll off your back.More times than not offense is taken where none was intended. It is was intended, you can address that separately.
Manage the impulse to fight or flee
The two most common impulses to conflict are avoidance and power – a part of our fight or flight response to danger. Perhaps the turning point in any conflict is the decision to hold the tension and stand in the middle ground between the impulse to fight back or to run away. Don’t shoot. Don’t run. Stand the ground long enough for all parties to find emotional equilibrium.
A tension free environment never exercises the critical thinking required in building a business. Nor does it prepare a team for solving problems, handling customer complaints, or navigating downturns. It’s uncomfortable in the moment, but it can allow conflict to become a transformative tool for all involved.
When handling conflict, your ways trump your wins
This is where the genius resides. Instead of getting caught up in the What of conflict, focus on the How. Authors from many camps have spoken of this. The classic “Getting to Yes” based on work from the Harvard Negotiating Projects calls for separating people from the problem and interests from positions.
“Peacemaking” author Ken Sande suggests our personal choice of attitudes and words based on certain immutable truths will make all the difference. Both authors point to the same principle – by attending to the How first, the What becomes clearer and the Outcome can produce community. Which leads to the fifth principle.
Healthy conflict produces community not chaos
Almost always the muscles of a team are strengthen through the exercise of conflict.Trust can be deepened, respect widened, opportunities broadened, and competency sharpened.
Conflict well handled produces community and eliminates chaos. It’s clearly worth the investment of time to figure this out. You can begin with the very next communication where someone expresses a difference or disagreement.
I’d give that just a few minutes. So get ready.
What makes conflict difficult for you?