Positive Conflict

“I hate conflict, and I avoid it at all costs. It’s just how I’m wired. So I guess I just have to put up with it.”

This was a statement made to me recently by a team member who was struggling in her job with someone who, in her opinion, was an overbearing supervisor. I believe this statement and belief have kept her in that state of struggle for years… a state of constant annoyance, under-performance, and dissatisfaction with her job.

“Conflict avoidance” is a myth. We don’t avoid conflict. Conflict will find us regardless of whether we want it to or not. Conflict is part of operating as a human in this world. When we are faced with conflict, we either manage or mismanage it. Period. When we ignore or try to avoid conflict, we’re simply reacting in a less than positive way to it—often because we don’t have any skills to do otherwise.

We probably all know that fighting, fleeing, and freezing are reactions to conflict or stressful situations—but so is avoiding or ignoring it. When we play the victim, sulk, withdraw, or act passive-aggressively, we are reacting. And we have control over these reactions. We can do better if we want to.

I recently listened to a podcast interview with Deepak Chopra where he outlined the hierarchy of our responses:

  • Primal responses (based in survival and hardwired through evolution): Fight, Flight, or Freeze
  • Reactive responses (based on manipulation and learned in childhood): Nice, Nasty, Stubborn (Withdrawn), or Playing the Victim

We’ve all used these reactive responses, and many times they worked for us. This taught our minds that these reactions were at least somewhat effective—at least until we matured enough to know that they weren’t really serving us nor were they effective if we desired to live at a higher level of consciousness, self-awareness, and better results.

We react in all these ways because we have framed conflict as a threat or a negative interaction—something to avoid, if we can. But, what if we could re-contextualize conflict as something neutral? What if we saw it as an opportunity to practice our ability to positively manage it? Even better, what if we believed that conflict was natural, helpful, and healthy for us in terms of our ability to grow and mature in our relationships?

I see people all the time lately (including myself) who are shying away from important conversations for fear that others will be (at best) offended or defensive or (at worst) will be on the attack and angered by our point of view.

What if we could use frequent, smaller conflicts in our daily lives to practice the art of positively managing it so that when bigger issues arise, we feel better prepared to navigate them?

Here are a few tips to help us all navigate small moments of disagreement or conflict in our everyday lives so we can strengthen this muscle and do better:

  • Ask yourself, “Does my position, and the way I state it, affirm the other person’s identity or threaten it?” We all gain if we all leave this conversation whole and uplifted.
  • Instead of, “You’re wrong.” Try, “I see your point. My (view/idea/request) is this…”
  • Take a breath. Be intentional.
  • Be patient… with them and yourself. Remember that this is practice. You won’t always get it right, but you’re learning new ways to operate within conflict to create a better result for you and them.
  • Since few people see the past the same way, redirect never-ending circular discussions about past events toward creating a better future. “Okay, but going forward what ideas do we have to resolve this for the future?”
  • Be curious. Commit to learning more than you thought you knew about the other’s position or ideas. Ask questions and really listen to the other point of view.
  • Lose your need to be “right.” Be open to creative solutions you never considered before, as long as it works for both parties.
  • Be brave. Step up your game and don’t give in to old tendencies to sulk, to withdraw, to be snarky, to be combative, to play the victim, or to be passive-aggressive. It’s never a real win if you won with anger, shouting, name-calling, or insults until the other person submits or walks away.
  • Be kind—even if the other person isn’t.

In his interview, Deepak Chopra offered four additional and more enlightened ways to respond to conflict and stress: being personally centered, intuitive, creative, and visionary.

Leaders go first. They are not waiting on others to lead. They know the answers for any situation are not “out there” or within others… but rather within us. Our world desperately needs our positive contribution to moments of conflict. Our children, employees, co-workers, colleagues, and friends are watching us. Let us commit to halting immature and unconscious reactions to conflict and demonstrate a higher level of self-control, self-awareness, and positive, respectful communication. Let us step into the work of becoming the visionaries whom others want to emulate and follow.

Let us be the change we wish to see.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
~ Steve Jobs