Ever been in a meeting when one person says one thing, another person says something opposite and there is that awkward moment of silence?

How about when you read an email where one person shares a point of view and someone else has replied with an opposing view – do you feel a moment of discomfort?

We are pre-programmed to desire harmony in groups, from an evolutionary perspective, groups which stay together were more likely to survive the wilderness. Therefore, we feel discomfort when we notice an opposition of views, as that could lead to conflict.

In the last year particularly, possibly a sign of the emotional strain from the pandemic, I have noticed I’ve been having more conversations with teams about conflict. Specifically, how they can move from destructive, negative conflict to a more harmonious space in their teams.

The first thing to note is that not all conflict is bad. Conflict of opinion can lead to debate, to discussion, to helping issues become more transparent and understood, and it can definitely help more innovative solutions to be found.

Patrick Lencioni talks a lot about ‘healthy conflict’ as a function of a high performing team. In his model The Five Dysfunctions of a Team he talks about how teams who fear conflict and desire harmony can stifle productive discussions within the team.

Patrick Lencioni particularly highlights that this can feel very artificial as people leave things unsaid, do not air where they disagree and not only might poor decisions be made or undeliverable action plans go unchallenged but the person who silently disagrees may go off in their own direction  altogether.

When there is fear of having the tricky conversations ask yourself this:

  • What does not get raised and addressed?
  • What continues to fester and undermine relationships?
  • What impact does it have on the team’s effectiveness?

You are probably thinking, that that’s all well and good, but it can actually feel like a very uncomfortable space. When working with other people, we tend to steer away from discomfort.

You may recognise this discomfort as the voice in your head reasoning against what you are hearing or seeing, the feeling of tenseness or tightness in your body. You may even feel yourself resisting being in contact with the other party, such as wanting to leave or even not attending a meeting, avoiding someone. You may even feel stronger emotions such as anger or upset.

Therefore, the question I keep being asked is – so what can we do about it?

I’d like to share some ideas that could help you grow more comfortable with and embrace conflict in a healthy way.

1. Find a conflict role-model: as a child, how we see other people handle conflict tends to influence us a lot as an adult, whether you had an argumentative family or a quiet family who stewed over issues. However, we are not beholden to our past and finding new role-models of people who you see handle conflict effectively can be a good source of influence.

Ask yourself who could be your role-model, and whose approach you could try to emulate in times of conflict?

Once you are armed with that insight, ask yourself, what skills you would benefit from learning to help you in conflict situations?

2. Understand how your personality influences your reaction: your personality traits may impact whether you find debate and conversation energising or draining. You may prefer to think things through before you discuss them, or check all the facts and evidence first before raising your concerns. You may be someone who likes to speak up and air your feelings to enable you to discuss them and influence a conversation. Understanding your personality traits can help you understand why you approach conflict in the way you do.

3. Identify how your motivations affect how you engage: how much you have invested emotionally and mentally and what you have at stake will also influence how you respond to conflict. It might be a high stakes situation, in which case your likelihood of speaking up and debating is stronger, or indeed you may withdraw completely to protect yourself and what you have invested.

When in a situation that would benefit from some debate and conflict, question your motivations; are they the right reason and will it benefit the outcome?

4. Develop your curiosity: we make assumptions about people all the time, it’s a natural part of our processing approach. It helps us make quicker sense of the world. However, whether true or not, judgements can overly influence and may lead us to see criticism or unfair comments when they may not be. Seek to approach the conversation with curiosity i.e. what is their world view on this situation? Imagine a conversation is like looking at a house. You are all looking through a different window of the house; so what window are they looking through and how is their life and work experience influencing what they are saying. A really beneficial action to help develop your curiosity muscle is to consciously talk to other people who are very different to you. Get to know people you wouldn’t usually. Seek to understand where they are coming from in their views.

You don’t have to agree, but you can seek to understand. Ask yourself what you could do to be more consciously curious?

5. Get better at spotting your physical reactions: You may be aware of the cognitive thinking cycle, which proposes that there is a feeling behind every action and a thought behind every feeling. Many of these thoughts are subconscious. By spotting the reaction in your body (e.g. heart racing, blinking fast, sweaty palms, feeling hot, hands shaking etc.) you can start to spot your feelings consciously. When you spot those, you can then question what thought might be happening subconsciously, which has made you feel irritated or angered or a bit upset. This takes time to practise as you have to be very conscious of your reactions rather than just responding to your reactions. Once you spot those, you can name them and start to identify and explore the thoughts behind them. Often these are beliefs or values deep in our subconscious and influence us. Once you’ve understood those you can then start to influence and change your thoughts, which in turn then helps influence your feelings and your subsequent actions.

Identify your physical response to conflict situations, such as in a meeting or debate; what do they feel like to you and what thoughts might be behind them? What thoughts might you want to replace these with?

6. Identify the opportunities for learning and growth: Our natural reaction to conflict is to see this as a threat – to our place in society, to our place in the team, to us professionally and personally. Threats can lead us to see situations as dangerous and therefore, we should go with safe and familiar options. This closes our creative thinking down. It also leads to a feeling of mistrust in ourselves and in those around us. However, when we spot ourselves reacting in this way, we can ask ourselves – what are the opportunities here? You may have come across the term Growth Mindset (link) which encourages us to look at failures and challenges as something we have yet to overcome. The power of “yet” helps us see situations as incomplete and spaces for us to learn and grow.

Ask yourself, what helps you switch into a growth mindset when you feel threatened and unsure?

In summary, I have shared with you tried and tested tactics to develop your comfort with conflict to embrace this as a healthy space in meetings and in your teams. We have offered six ideas for you to work with and I encourage you to pick the one you could focus on over the next month to help you develop your comfort with conflict:

  1. Find a conflict role-model
  2. Understand how your personality influences your reaction
  3. Identify how your motivations affect how you engage
  4. Develop your curiosity
  5. Get better at spotting your physical reactions
  6. Identify the opportunities for learning and growth

Do share with me how it goes. Please also share what other tools, tactics, and approaches you use to build a healthy approach to conflict?

Rebecca Stevens MSc., C.Psychol, AFBPsS, ACC