Conflict between people and groups of people is inevitable, often necessary and deeply part of being human. Without it, people often deny what they think and feel. It is through conflict that we can understand someone else better and ultimately ourselves. It’s the grit that makes the pearl.
However, in business there’s typically an unwritten rule that we shouldn’t seek out conflict. Neutrality often wins and conflict is seen as unhelpful, unprofessional and unproductive for progress. But, avoiding conflict in the work place can be at the expense of understanding an issue more deeply and forgoing the pearls at the other end. However, this can only come about through the right response to conflict.
Psychologists identify four different conflict responses. First, there’s the passive ‘anything for a quiet life’ response. Second, there’s the aggressive ‘fight or flight’ response. Then there’s the passive-aggressive ‘aggression under cover’ response. Finally there’s the assertive response. The assertive response is different to the aggressive response in one important way. Yes, it’s stating your position and views but it’s not trying to win the argument. It’s stating your truth as you see it and allowing others to understand more about what’s going on for you and the reasons behind your views.
So, it’s not about inviting more aggression, more passivity or a mix of the two into our meetings and work relationships. It’s about inviting more assertive discussion and putting to one side the seduction of being right.
Next time you’re faced with a complex work issue, set the following expectations for yourself and others, as it could make the difference:
- Opinions and views should form, change, shift and develop through discussion, even if only slightly. This is a more natural response than simply digging deeper into previously dug trenches.
- Understanding alternative views more deeply doesn’t require you to believe in them more.
- Views are rarely truly opposed. Find the points of similarity as well as difference.
- Change the space. Leave the office. Connect outside the normal context.
- Give up on generalisations. They create automatic stalemates. Unpack the nitty gritty and specifics of a situation to find a way through.
- Say how you feel without enacting the emotion of that feeling.
- Find humour to lighten the emotion, ‘it’s the yeast that makes the bread rise’.
A bit more conflict at work if expressed through encouraging people to assert and explore a wide range of views can help deepen understanding, explore issues afresh and allow ideas to more naturally weave together to create more valuable results.