Take a moment and think back to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and being confined to your home for extended periods of time. It did not take long before conflict raised its ugly head. How did I cope? I escaped to collect my thoughts. What did it feel like for you to steal away for a time to go to the grocery store to be “alone” and socially distanced? I lost count of how many times my family “needed” something from the grocery store. The drive alone and the time in the store with no one near me were sublime.
The questions that conflict brings to the forefront are:
- What makes conflict so messy?
- Is conflict avoidable?
- Should conflict be avoided?
- Is the challenge in how to deal with conflict, or rather how to engage in healthy conflict?
- How do high-performing teams manage conflict?
Conflict doesn’t have to be messy and personal.
Each of us comes to the table uniquely and wonderfully made. We are intentionally different. When different comes together, especially in emotionally charged moments, there is going to be conflict.
However, we need to remember conflict can be healthy and is supposed to exist. Conflict should be about the behavior or the issue and not about the person. Take the initiative to model healthy conflict and see how it impacts the roles and relationships in your circles of influence. Healthy servant leaders, servant teammates, and servant followers seek to go first. What do you model?
Three Ways to Better Approach Conflict Resolution
1. See Healthy Conflict as a Journey, Not a Destination
a. Know that Conflict Will Happen
Like change, conflict is inevitable. How we respond versus react to conflict is key. We react emotionally and respond cognitively. What does it look like to shepherd conflict well and turn it into something that builds relationships and helps the team win? How can you add value in those difficult moments?
b. Healthy Conflict is Possible
Set the model for healthy conflict and create group norms that help ensure it. Yes, it is possible to set up rules that will help facilitate healthier engagements. Insisting on a respectful tone, avoiding vulgarities and personal attacks, using truthful facts, and not just feelings to engage are but a few norms that can be established. Invite your team to help craft a “Rules of Engagement” list.
Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, writes that a lack of healthy conflict will eat away at overall trust and ensure a lack of commitment from others. Think back to a team that was difficult to be on and one that was enjoyable. Both may have performed well or maybe not. What were the key differences? One probably felt like a have to be on and the other more like a get to be on.
c. Avoid False Harmony
I would rather be on a team in all-out conflict than one that engages in false harmony generated by conflict avoidance. When a group of people is engaged in false harmony, it is only a matter of time before the issues become so volatile and emotionally charged that it all goes nuclear. When things go nuclear, they stay radioactive for a long time. As it relates to conflict, there tends to be irreparable damage to relationships, the team, and the organization. Is this something you have seen or experienced? Most have.
2. It All Begins with the One in the Mirror
a. Own Your Part
Self-awareness and owning your part in the situation is a great place to begin. Realizing that even if we are only 10% at fault, we still have to own that. The sooner we realize and own our part, the quicker we can get to resolution and constructive engagement. What does it look like for you to own your part in one of those messy engagements?
b. Learn How to Express Empathy
Practice empathy always, not just in the easy moments. Multi-Health Systems defines empathy in their emotional intelligence quotient inventory assessments as “recognizing, understanding, and appreciating how other people feel. Empathy involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects others’ feelings.” If we exercise using empathy in the good moments, those empathy muscles tend to be more effective in the more uncomfortable ones.
Learning to listen well is a sure-fire way to express better empathy. We also become more informed and aware of what the other person is thinking and feeling. The Message Bible translation offers a great interpretation of Proverbs 18:13, “answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” Learning to listen well can be a game-changing, force-multiplying, and relationship-building tsunami in your efforts to lead, team, and follow.
c. Use a Servant Leader Mental Mindset
Engage others with a get to attitude versus a have to perspective. Show up to give versus to get something from others. Intentionally model the way and go first instead of waiting on others to act.
3. Healthy Conflict Takes Intentional Effort and Work
a. Consider Walking Up the Judging Ladder
The Judging Ladder is a tool that I use in coaching to help others understand that there are some natural behaviors that can be overcome to engage in healthy conflict. The tool begins with the idea that everyone has some awareness of those around them. The challenge is that this can quickly move to judging and stop there. The goal is to push past the judging using empathy and into understanding them on a personal and professional level. This then sets the stage for appreciating them for who they are and what they bring to the team.
Ultimately, the goal is to move to valuing those around you for their wonderful uniqueness and learning how to tap into their strengths in a way that they willingly and enthusiastically use their energies to pursue the objectives and goals of the team.
b. Seek to Engage Others Well
Engaging others well from the start doesn’t have to be difficult. Seek to have others believe you know them, care about them, and want to help them become better. Galatians 5:22–23 (The Fruit of the Spirit) is an excellent guide on how to conduct ourselves during conflict. What would it be like to have conflict with someone who was genuinely loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, good, faithful, and self-controlled?
These words are a great reminder going into what we know is going to be a challenging dialogue, a hard phone conversation, or a corrective action. We do not have to let the situation drive us to be any of the opposites of these words. We get to choose our demeanor.
c. Understand Feedback is a Gift
Feedback should be a gift that helps another to become better. How well do you receive them? How well do you give feedback? The goal is to be as good a feedback receiver as we are as a feedback giver. The quickest way to establish this kind of environment is to be genuinely available and approachable. When our teammates believe they can approach us with difficult conversations and we display availability for them to do so, issues become known by everyone long before they can become nuclear.
Bringing challenging questions to a trusted third-party mentor or a personal advisory board can be helpful too. Imagine how much more effective you can be with others if you tap into others who may have already walked those difficult paths.
Start Making Conflict an Asset
Healthy conflict is a journey, not a destination, it starts with the one in the mirror, and it takes intentional work and effort. Conflict is not optional, but we can choose healthier ways to engage it with those around us. A great quote from one of my team member’s grandfathers is, “In life, you will never be problem free. But if you are wise you can choose your problems.”