I will start off by making a confession. I hate conflict. I would rather we all get along and play nice – world peace and all that. My usual response to conflict is to pretend it’s not happening, pretend it’s someone else’s problem, or to run away from it. I’ve learned that in order for me to lead powerfully and authentically, I need to embrace conflict. The Chinese character for conflict has both danger and opportunity. Every conflict has within it the opportunity for positive change – the transformation of the problem through the transformation of those engaged in the conflict.
Just last week I had an interesting Twitter dialogue with someone which started off as “Gawd! No, no thanks” in response to an article I wrote about how women redefine power. He suggested that women need to be told to exert power like a man. I asked him how it would feel if I told him to wear a skirt. Here’s the full Twitter dialogue. The good news is that we both came away embracing conflict and learning something new.
Five Steps to Embrace Conflict
1) Understand your own conflict threshold and theirs – Each of us have a different conflict threshold. Mine is pretty low (I tend to feel discomfort with even low levels of conflict). What I see as conflict can likely be seen by others as a “healthy exchange of ideas”. When we are in conflict with another person who has a higher conflict threshold than us, there is a risk that we may not powerfully express our point of view or give in too easily. Conversely if we have a higher conflict threshold than the other person, we risk misinterpreting their acquiescence as agreement. Either situation prevents us from leading effectively.
2) Practice empathy – Generally when we experience conflict, it’s because we hold our own point of view in higher regard than the other person’s point of view. Of course we would. It’s ours and we want to be right! In practicing empathy, I assume that their point of view is as valid for them as mine is for me. We’re both right! It’s hard to do because it’s hard for the brain to hold two conflicting thoughts – but it can be done when we remind ourselves to take a higher ground.
3) Practice getting curious – As a person who hates conflict, I’ve found a way to reframe conflict as a way for me to learn something new. I ask questions to be able to see the world from their perspective. In answering my questions, they are also able to think through their point of view. Most conflict arises when we are in an emotional state. Asking questions gets a different part of the brain engaged. It also lowers the collective blood pressure (or at least mine!)
4) Practice active listening – When someone has stated their point of view take the time to summarize your understanding of this to them. This helps them to know that you’re trying to understand them. They are more likely to operate from their rational brain centers once they feel understood. Neuroscience has discovered the presence of “mirror neurons” in our brains. This is an automatic mirroring process that happens where we unconsciously adapt our behavior to the other person. When we take the high road the other person will likely mirror us.
5) Share your own point of view – As Steven Covey very wisely said, “Seek first to understand and then be understood”. In practicing curiosity and active listening, we can frame our point of view in a way that will be persuasive to the other person. In addition, the other person will be better able to “hear us” because they have felt heard and understood.
If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe and share with others.
For additional information on this topic check out my LinkedIn Learning Course.
Try an “Ignite the Fire” session if you’re feeling stuck in a conflict situation.
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Henna, excellent post
I think in any conflict situation being confident to set boundaries is an important step. Too often it seems that one of the parties is expected to ‘give in’. Being in conflict does not have to result in a loss of self-esteem.
A favorite saying when working with parents & teens: Conflict is inevitable….combat is optional.
Thanks for your comment Carl! I agree with you that in conflict situations one of the parties can give in sooner than they are fully ready to.
Love the saying: Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional.
Thank you for this insightful post. Your point about being curious is spot on, it can take the wind out of the conflict situation in a matter of minutes if not earlier. Conflict at work is a reality and people need to empower themselves to handle it in the right manner.
My personal approach and one that is shared with my clients is ‘if you have to fight then fight fire with water not fire.’
Hi Sridhar – Thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, your advice to your clients is spot on. When we get curious it takes the drama and ego out of the situation – we no longer are invested in the need to be right, just the need to understand the situation better.
Great article as I can relate to avoiding conflict at the best of time. But I do so at my peril become things just seem to fester over time.By embracing conflict and seeking to understand the other person’s point of view builds a relationship that can be built upon and at least we may come to disagree with a point of view and that is still healthier than anger or aggression. The world is not a perfect place and there are no hard and fast rules as to what is better for the collective good of all. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. Empathy and humility are wonderful virtues.
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Thank you for this post. This article beautifully explained all the steps to embrace conflict. It has enlightened my knowledge.