Making the Most of Conflict

Making the Most of ConflictYuck.  It’s the ‘C’ word again.  No one likes to deal with it.  We avoid conflict and are asked to step up to it instead.  But still we avoid it.  We squirm even when we think about it.  Conflict is uncomfortable and uncertain and unwelcome – or is it necessarily so?

Do you know any couples who affirm that their marriages improved after a period of conflict?  Do you know any people who became unshakeable friends after starting out in deep disagreement and lack of civility?  What makes those conflict situations draw out the best – rather than the worst – from a difficult time?

The concept of conflict brings out all the battle analogies – clash, dispute, struggle.  But there are other words that are synonymous with ‘conflict’ that can help us cast it in a less wearying light: ‘divergence’, or ‘tension’, for example.  At its heart, conflict is simply difference.  So one way to bring down the stakes in a conflict situation is to recast it as only a difference to be bridged.  When you thought the meeting time was 3:00 and your colleague thought it was 4:00, it is a conflict – but easy to handle as a difference to be resolved.  It helps if you can remind yourself, when the stakes are higher, that many problems can be reduced to these types of perception differences.

But let’s move beyond just damage reduction.  A conflict is an opportunity as well.  The dictionary has an interesting synonym for it: ‘engagement’.  A conflict is an opportunity to engage with someone on a deeper level than you might normally experience.  How can you then create a positive engagement when faced with a divergence in thoughts, beliefs, or norms?

Examine your intent.  Before engaging, back up and recast your motivations in your own mind.  We often start with an intent to convince someone of the rightness of our own point of view.  It’s the biggest culprit in making conflict uncomfortable, because it sets us up for divergence rather than convergence of thought.  Establish firmly in your mind that your intent is to explore rather than to advocate.

Assume the good intent of your challenger.  Most people are not out to do us harm.  Like you, your challenger has strongly held beliefs and by voicing them, is not intending to make your life miserable (though for the moment, that may be the impact).  But return to the likely benign intent of anyone who challenges you.

Appreciate.  Your challenger has opened a door, and you will be most successful in entering his house when you appreciate – and voice to him – your gratefulness for his entrée.  “Thank you, John.  You’ve given me an opportunity to both better understand you and your thoughts, and also to reflect on my own.”

Remain curious.  Too often we go straight to the heart of the divergence and argue the ‘facts’ without understanding the layers of experience, belief systems, and environmental influence that form opinions.  Yet those unseen factors are the ones that must be explored if we want to reach a common understanding.  Good questions to ask are open-ended and cover such things as:

  • What experience has contributed to the point of view (including emotional triggers)? Someone’s past experience of failure will deeply influence a preferred approach that avoids risk, for example.  Emotional triggers are even bigger contributors.  One colleague that expressed a very strident viewpoint revealed that she had a boss who was demeaning every time she spoke out in a meeting, and the only way she could have her voice heard with others was to exaggerate the downside effects very firmly.  Years later and through different bosses, she continued to use that exaggerated tone in presenting her divergent thinking.  Your own experiences are equally influential, so get curious about what is shaping your perspective.
  • What values underlie the differences? Values elicit passion, so understanding them is key to building bridges.  Explore particularly what your challenger views as ‘ethical’, ‘honest’, ‘fair’, ‘respectful’, and ‘loyal’ – values that tend to generate polarity.  Turn the lens on yourself, too, to better understand and compare your own values to that of your challenger.
  • What in the environment is influencing a point of view? If your challenger is getting tremendous pressure to meet a deadline, or to increase sales, it will influence his thinking.  If he has personal financial stress, it may make him less willing to take risks at work.  If he’s constantly arguing with a teenager at home, it may make him dig in his heels at work as well.  Again, consider as well what in your environment is shaping your opinions and behaviors.

Build relationship.  Throughout a conflict engagement, understand that your goal is less about resolving the conflict.  That will happen when you have established a relationship with someone.  My colleague and I have widely divergent political and economic views, but because we have a strong, caring, respectful relationship, we can discuss our different viewpoints.  We view them not as ‘conflict’, but as differences in world view.  We learn from each other.  We build together better responses to situations, not despite our differences, but because of them.  That’s the goal.  It is not to convince someone of your rightness, but to come to understand one another and agree on a path forward.


Conflict doesn’t have to be a dirty word.  Without embracing conflict as beneficial, all we seek out are like-minded thinkers and timid opponents.  And we never get the benefit of getting much better solutions and, even more importantly, much deeper relationships.  So next time you face a conflict, open that door with a big welcome and thanks, and settle in for a longer and more energizing engagement.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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