When the challenge of addressing conflict is brought up, I like to engage in a free association activity. You can try it now. What do you think of when I say the word conflict?
About 80% of the answers I typically hear are negative. Things like abrasive, violent, meanness, discord, unpleasantness, discomfort, etc. But every once in a while someone will say: learning, curiosity, or opportunity. Leaders need to have a healthy view of conflict, not just as an inevitable moment of stress, but as a time to stretch and grow themselves and the team. Expanding how one frames conflict is critical to effectively managing, embracing, and valuing it as an essential tool in leading others.
Effective conflict management involves considering various perspectives, even if--no, especially if they introduce different ideas and approaches. Here are eight ideas that will enable you to lean into instead of shy away from conflict as you manage others. These ideas are not isolated from one another, but instead, they work together to help you resolve and work through conflicts.
1. Embrace Conflict as a Learning Experience
Managing conflict well starts with your mindset. Often, when we find ourselves in conflict we reflexively adopt a fixed notion that things cannot or should not change. This reflex arises from fear and anxiety - and it is normal. Having feelings of nervousness around conflict doesn’t mean you have problems, it means you are a good, dedicated person who is invested in the future.
Channel that commitment and energy into curiosity, and approach the conflict as an opportunity to learn and progress. Remind yourself that the result is not predetermined or fixed and that in working through any given conflict, the opportunity to learn something new, partner with others, gain advice, or put yourself out there is more rewarding than having the final word or feeling reluctant about taking a risk.
2. Clarify Acceptable Behavior
Create a set of guidelines you and your team members can use during the inevitable times of conflict. This is critical to managing expectations on the front end.
- When determining what behavior is acceptable, answer these questions:
- How will we treat each other?
- What is the approach we use to work through issues we disagree on?
- What values will guide our approach to conflict?
- What behaviors are never acceptable?
Think through the possibilities. Do you want to solve problems by yelling and cursing at each other? Do you want to avoid it by smiling to their face and talking about it behind their back? Or do we choose to address one issue at a time and brainstorm possible solutions?
Leaders must work with their teams to communicate the expectations, and then model the behavior by walking-the-talk.
3. Listen to their Perspective
It’s as important to understand the other person’s perception of the facts, as it is to know the facts. This is because our perception of events is our reality. That means when working through conflict we must suspend judgment and get curious about the other person. Where do they come from? What is their background? What do they value? What pressures or stresses do they experience from their boss or the organization?
In order to understand their perspective, we must resist labels and listen. Once we know what they are most concerned about - whether it is saving face, getting the right technical solution, or knowing that they contributed to the project - then we can begin to resolve the conflict.
4. Talk, Talk, and Talk
Sitcoms can drive me nuts. Every episode seems to revolve around a misunderstanding, followed by a purposeful lack of communication. Whenever I see this I want to shout at the TV, “will you just talk to each other already?”
One response to conflict is to shy away from it instead of talking about it. We withdraw and avoid conflict while it simmers, festering unnecessarily until a small conflict blows up into a much larger and much harder to resolve conflict.
If we want to manage conflict rather than letting it manage us, we must gather our courage and broach the topic early. Seek to clarify and resolve instead of avoiding or competing.
5. Identify Common Ground
One effective method for handling conflict is to look for what you have in common. When there is confusion or disagreement, it’s powerful to go back to what unites us, and there are inevitably things that unite us. It could be that you both agree on the end result - a quality solution that is best for the customer. Or you might agree on the means - how we can accomplish the task.
For example, instead of just arguing just about remote workforce policies, you can first agree on the importance of employee safety and productivity. Admittedly, sometimes what you have in common is sparse, but there is always a space you can find together that provides an opportunity to move forward.
6. Prevent and Address when Conflict is Small
Traditionally, firefighters have identified fires as one, two, three, or even four-alarm blazes. This coding helps them know how many trucks and personnel to send in order to combat the flames. It’s helpful to think of conflicts along a similar scale.
The time to address a conflict is when you first experience it or notice it. Just like fires, unresolved conflicts are significantly more likely to intensify than they are to die down on their own. Rather than letting it build up and preparing yourself for a four-alarm fire, get in there at the first sign of smoke so you can move forward quickly and productively.
7. Pick Your Battles Wisely
It takes some political savvy, but you must determine which hill is the one you want to die on - and very few hills fit that description. When you find yourself embroiled in conflict, step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Reflect on your values, the impact on the team, your career, or your customers and determine if this battle is one you want to pursue or one you can let go.
This can be a challenge when your blood pressure is rising, you feel as though you are absolutely and even morally correct. But few things, thank goodness, are on an order of that magnitude. Instead, we live in an imperfect world and most conflicts deserve more conversation, compromise, and discussion.
You also want to let people know that you have decided to let it go, and establish a reputation in being able to let things go so others believe you. If you know that the outcome of this conflict matters little to you, communicate that right away. Nobody can read your mind.
8. Forgive and Move On
We sometimes don’t take advantage of one of the most beautiful and human things we can do - our ability to forgive and forget.
It can be hard because we are very, very good at remembering. We remember slights and hurts that can be hard to overcome and easy to hold against people. But when we give ourselves the freedom to let go we find a sense of peace and a willingness to be open to learning again.
Now, this is not to sanction stupidity. If you get burned all the time, you know not to keep touching the fire. This also doesn’t mean the right response is to get mad at the fire. Instead, move on, let it go, and don’t carry it with you. We all have stories about times we have decided to let something that angered us or hurt us go, and how we moved forward without all of the baggage weighing us down. Think back to a time you have let something go and the impact it had on your well-being.
Debate and conflict serve a necessary and important function. By expanding our understanding of conflict, and even embracing conflict, we increase our ability to inspire and unite across the diversity of our teams resulting in greater inclusivity, higher engagement, and more innovative and effective results.