What would happen if you were to view conflict as an opportunity for understanding and connection, instead of tension and defensiveness?

“Turbulence is life force. It is opportunity. Let’s love turbulence and use it for change.” – Ramsey Clark, former US Secretary of State

While viewpoints often differ, disagreements can be healthy if you can overcome a lifetime of conditioning to avoid conflict, and resist any impulse to attack the person with whom you disagree. The messages we hear growing up: “If he hits you, hit him back,” “An eye for an eye,” or “Don’t rock the boat,” and “Leave well enough alone”, have trained us to either respond aggressively to conflict or to sidestep it whenever possible. Yet, the most effective leaders are able to skillfully work through conflict without compromising their big picture goals or core values.

Where does conflict come from?

Conflicts may develop for a number of reasons, though typically, people experience conflict in five general areas, which may, and often do, overlap:

  • Information – people in conflict often have different or incomplete information, or they may interpret their information differently.
  • Relationships – some people do not get along, maybe because they don’t have enough history to have gotten to know each other, or their thinking style or work views are very different.
  • Resources – money, power, respect, and time are resources that may be scarce, and that multiple parties want. Conflicts can arise when the struggle for these resources becomes a perceived, or real, fight for survival.
  • Rights and responsibilities – conflicts at work often develop when individuals are unclear about the things to which they are entitled, as well as where their duties begin and end.
  • Values – the things we care about most, our values, are deeply ingrained. Conflicts over such deeply held beliefs may never be resolved and often, the best we can hope for is a better understanding of how a person came to adopt their beliefs and that we “agree to disagree”.

Unresolved or unhealthy conflicts can cripple your organization, causing employees to disengage and disregard the organization’s goals in order to survive in what they interpret as a hostile environment.

We know that conflict is a fact of life and we can choose to see the opportunity in it. To do this, however, means we need to acquire skills to communicate in challenging situations. We need training and we a foundation of trust on which we can engage in conflict. Trust is built by getting to know another, and being known by another. This happens when we share vulnerable situations, either work-related or through the exchange of personal stories. Seeing the person behind the name, role, and title of a coworker is a simple but meaningful way to build trust.

As we exchange a bit of self-disclosure, taking some risk that another could take advantage of us, we put deposits into the relational bank account. We can then be more direct with our truth and, by doing so, express disagreement and feedback while feeling less “at-risk” or vulnerable. As we express and deeply listen to discover the unmet need in another, we use conflict to put even more deposits into the relational bank account. As trust grows, organizational friction shrinks.

If we choose to avoid conflict, it maybe because there is a lack of trust. Yet ironically, real conflict will result from the avoidance of smaller conflict that is avoided.

An effective leader knows the warning signs of unsurfaced or unresolved conflict and takes timely action, thereby seizing on a great relationship and leadership opportunity.