From an outsiders point of view, Murch family dinners could be viewed by some people as ‘tension city’. For others, it represents an entertaining sparring match between passionate communicators. In our household, conflict was ok. Generally, it was how we got our point across. Yes sometimes with a little too much ‘verve’, but it’s what we knew.
Depending on what you are used to, or how you are wired, one of the biggest blockers that I see with people and workplaces collaborating well, are those that have a poor relationship with conflict. They are either uncomfortable with it, and therefore avoid, or they create way too much tension for the conflict to be productive.
If we agreed all the time we would never have the gift of shared thinking, and coming up with the best way of doing or seeing things. Whilst it can be the clashing of principles, it is also the pushing of boundaries and the challenging of the status quo. Our negative attitude to conflict tends to cloud our ability to deal with it. Embracing conflict can be counter intuitive to what we know.
Sporting teams are ok with conflict. There would not be competition without it. If people were not comfortable challenging the status quo we would not have products like Apple Macs, just ask Steve Jobs. If people were not comfortable with conflict we would not have a change in our attitude to the environment, to racism, to child slavery, to women in leadership, to name a few. And then there are the small debates that can create magic strategies, tweaks or new service lines. They don’t have to be big to matter.
Margaret Heffernan, a well renowned author and speaker on managing high-achieving talent and continuous innovation and the role of leaders tells us that openness alone can not drive change. Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. Nor does being right drive change.
Heffernan says we need to find ‘thinking partners’ who are not ‘echo chambers’ of our own thinking. I love that, echo chambers. For some, they think surrounding themselves with a group of people who agree with their thinking is a good thing. Good because they can move forward quickly and get things done. Less conflict = less drama = happy workplace. That is how they think.
For those that want to drive innovation and improvement and become a better version of themselves and their workplaces, we need to think differently. We need to become comfortable with pushing each other; to become comfortable ‘intellectually sparring’ with our thinking partners.
If you see conflict as healthy thinking it will allow people to speak up, allow new ideas and allow the tough conversations to be had… regularly. Then they don’t become as tough.
So why do we dislike conflict?
We are not used to it. It has not been a part of our upbringing, or our workplace or our social circles or culture.
We take different opinions personally. Conflict may challenge our ego, our sense of self, and not being good enough.
It represents a loss. It’s all about someone winning and someone losing. Having to know it all and have all the answers and ideas is a place where some people live. So when conflict occurs and their perspective, their view is being challenged, it is uncomfortable. It then leads to feelings of loss, resentment, anger, dislike, hostility if they feel they did not ‘win’.
To overcome our attitude to conflict and see it in a positive light, Heffernan suggests there are three steps;
1. Reframe your attitude of conflict.
If we decide conflict is bad then how will this help us? It won’t. If we are open to conflict being healthy then how we step into situations and conversations will have a significant shift. I work with far too many individuals and organisations where ‘passive agreement’ has become the norm. That is, agreeing to things even when we don’t believe in them, because you don’t think the conflict will be productive. It has the opposite affect where no one is discussing the very issues they should be such as poor performance, poor client relationships, poor leadership, poor strategic decisions. We think it won’t help. Well then you’re right… it won’t. Think differently to drive change for the better.
2. Be willing and courageous to learn.
Many years ago I bought a pair of $500 rollerblades. It was a girl’s initiative that seemed like a good idea at the time. We all lived by the beach and wanted to scoot up and down the footpaths looking like a scene from Xanadu. We wanted to look the goods and get fit at the same time. We got out the first day for 30 minutes. Our calves were hurting and we kept falling over. We were next to a pub so we thought we’d pop in for ‘one’. We have never rollerbladed since. I sold them on eBay for $70 last week. True story. We weren’t willing to push ourselves. Firstly to develop the talent and skills, and secondly to develop the courage to become better.
3. Develop the skills to communicate well.
I could not agree more! You might have the right attitude and have developed the courage to communicate. But if you do a poor job then it’s back to square one. There is after all, productive conflict and then just plain arguing.
So….Become aware of your relationship to conflict.
Reframe if necessary.
Build the skills to do it respectfully so you don’t damage relationships in the process.
Sounds simple hey?! It can be.