How to use conflict to your advantage
Conflict is good and necessary, and how we handle conflict determines whether it’s positive or destructive
Updated June 2015
“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.”
I was recently involved in a collaborative project with an organization that has a strong-willed board of directors. I spent many hours in meetings and got to know the members well. They didn’t always see eye to eye on issues and priorities, but what impressed me was in how they handled their differences: They didn’t avoid conflict just for the sake of being nice—and they didn’t make it personal, either.
On one occasion, a board member did me a giant favor. He privately told me that he’d felt disappointed and frustrated when I didn’t support his position in a meeting, especially since he thought he had my backing. My first reaction was to be defensive and explain myself, but I quickly got over that.
“Are you sure you’re not pretty angry, too?” I asked. “I would be if I thought someone had deceived me.”
As the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know—and I have to believe there are many people who have been unhappy, angry, hurt or otherwise frustrated by something I said or did … and I had no idea. We’ve all been there: Someone nurses a complaint, but for the sake of avoiding conflict or of hurting your feelings, or perhaps out of a fear of repercussion (whether real or imagined), never tells you. The resentment builds until it comes out in other ways, perhaps passive-aggressively, perhaps unconsciously, but with the same effect: The relationship suffers. And you never had the opportunity to explain or to change.
In the example above, my colleague’s disappointment was a simple case of miscommunication that was easily resolved. But what if he had never said anything?
This issue resonates with me. I’ve been there, ducking a conflict, because—let’s face it—dealing with conflict head-on is just hard.
Susan Shearouse, author of an American Management Association book on the topic, writes that learning to manage conflict is a lifelong journey, and that most of the time we do it easily and effectively, without even noticing.
Conflict with a capital “C” (think wars) conditions us to think that conflict is all about big disagreements, a battle royal to be avoided and dreaded, she writes. But conflict with a little “c” happens all the time: It’s when what you want, need or expect interferes with what I want, need or expect. We spend all day resolving conflicts on the job and off—“You want this report on Friday? Sorry, how about next Tuesday?”—without even noticing it.
Conflict is good and necessary, she says. How we handle conflict (including avoiding it) is the question of whether it’s positive or destructive.
Craig Runde, director of The Center for Conflict Dynamics, recommends taking a different perspective if you start to feel an emotion like anger or resentment when a conflict occurs. Replace “furious” with “curious,” he instructs. Getting to the root of the disagreement often dispels anger and can lead to understanding, greater trust and an even better solution.
Comments? Questions? Drop Keith an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a useful guide on this topic, read the American Management Association’s Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems so Everyone Can Get Back to Work by Susan Shearouse. A preview of the entire book is available here.