We tend to avoid conflict. We’ve been told very early on not to fight and to calm down. As human beings, as social animals we have a strong need to belong to a group and feel accepted.
On the other hand facing a conflict feels very uncertain. When we agree we know exactly where we stand together. But when we start to disagree or there’s a wound in our relationship that we need to poke to get the festered stuff out of it and start healing, we enter a realm of deep uncertainty. We’re vulnerable and it is hard and uncomfortable.
Yet conflicts are necessary and useful. Without conflicts we will not get the best solutions, the most brilliant implementations nor the strongest relationships. Therefore we should start to get used to conflicts.
1. Accept that there’s a tear and aim to fix it while it’s still manageable
If we let the things that bother us and potential disagreements to sit, they will only get worse and out of proportion. Richard Mullender told us in a negotiation workshop that difficult conversations are like hand grenades without a socket. You have no other option than to concentrate on holding it tightly and it will blow up in your face eventually anyway.
Also when you do open the conversation and toss the grenade on the other side, there will – undoubtedly – be damage. In the beginning. We need to accept that conflicts don’t start with mutual understanding and it takes time to get from the uncomfortable to the comfortable.
2. Let the other person know what’s coming and ask if it is okay
Not every situation is a good situation for a conflict. You can be preoccupied with something else entirely, or you’re exhausted or extremely busy. It will not serve the purpose to have the conflict when one or both participants are seriously not capable of handling it.
Also it is not constructive to spring the conflict upon the other participant out of the blue and expect them to engage in it without any warning. It’s better to say the intention out loud and ask if this is a good time.
Of course it will not do to use this as an escape from every conflict. Just saying “this is not a good time” and leaving it at that will eventually make things far worse. You’ll have to engage the subject sooner or later.
3. When people argue about things, stay on the same side
In Finland we have a saying that “things argue, not people” which is stated as a rule for having a good argument. It tries to teach us to talk about the matter at hand, not to attack the person. While it is a good reminder it can also lead us astray.
Since the things rarely argue with each other. It is the personal opinions, feelings, hopes, dreams and point’s of view that clash, not the things themselves. And to claim that you cannot feel hurt or that the conflict has nothing to do with your personality may be even harmful.
But it is good to bear in mind that even when we disagree about things, we are still on the same side. I’m not attacking you as a person, I’m trying to solve this thing that’s in front of us. And it really doesn’t hurt to state this out loud.
- I’m not disagreeing just for shits and giggles, but because we both want this project to succeed.
- I’m not bringing these things up to hurt your feelings but to make our relationship better and stronger.
- I’m not taking the opposite opinion to be difficult, but to make a more interesting and useful conversation.
Of course these are only useful if they’re true. If you don’t have a genuine wish to make things better, then these are merely false shields to hide behind and stab the other person on the back.
I preach what I need to learn
I haven’t mastered these myself yet. I am very good at avoiding conflicts and trying to keep everybody happy and the situation peaceful. Yet when I have tried to learn to disagree, to face a conflict I have found out that they make the relationships actually better.
Conflicts show us whether we really are on the same side. And when we get through them together they make us stronger.
Or do you disagree?
TL;DR: Regarding conflicts it’s good to bear in mind that
- the sooner you start them the easier they are to fix.
- not every moment is a good time for a conflict so tell the other person in advance that we’re having a disagreement and ask whether now is a good time to bring it up.
- even though we bring our personalities to the conflict, it is not okay to attack a person.
- it is important to stay on the same side even when you disagree.
- they’re never pleasant and easy and they will cause some damage in the beginning. But when you get through them together, it makes the relationship or team even stronger.