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Conflict is Entirely About Trust – Part I

I’m a leaner. Yes, it’s true. I lean back in my chairs. I drove my mother nuts, as well as many of my friends. I can still hear her (and some of those friends) saying “you’re going to break those chair legs if you keep leaning back in that chair!” I would dutifully apologize, set the chair flat again, and… 10 minutes later be leaning again. It’s more comfortable, you understand -

The truth is, I trust those chairs. I have very little reason to NOT trust them. I keep leaning and they keep supporting me. The evidence of my experience (sorry, Mom) is that it’s OK to lean back in chairs.

It never occurred to me to ask my Mom about HER experience with leaning back in chairs. It’s entirely possible she had a chair give out from under her at a bad time (and is there a good time to have your chair give way beneath you?) Or maybe she learned from other people that chair-leaning is risky business. In any event she didn’t trust those chairs.

Conflict is strangely like my thing with tipping back in chairs. We tend to be much more willing to engage in necessary conflict IF we have a sense of trust:

in ourselves, first

in the other person/people, second

and in the process used to manage conflict, third.

Trust is key to doing conflict well.

So What ARE the Repercussions of Trust, As Well As a Lack of Trust?

One of the best books ever written on trust is Covey’s “The Speed of Trust” (this is Stephen M.R. Covey, the son of the guy that wrote “7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Some days I think it may be the most important book for business ever written.

In it the Junior Covey argues that we, whether we intend to or not, end up either receiving a trust dividend (in high-trust situations/relationship) or paying a trust tax (in low-trust situations/relationships). That trust tax gets charged in multiple ways to each of us:

We get defensive when difficult conversations occur

We tend to listen a lot less and go on the offensive more frequently

We insist on more checks and reviews, and trust other people’s work less

All of the above, of course, consumes a lot of time

And, perhaps among the worst consequences, is that we avoid conflict (and the benefits thereof)

The dividends are equally compelling. If you trust your “sparring partner” you become more willing to:

be honest/direct

listen more, and listen with a more open mind

burn less time checking up on them/reviewing their work

deal more effectively/be more willing to receive useful critical, constructive feedback (and give it too)

give the other person a break/forgive mistakes/overlook slights

and, perhaps among the best consequences, you’re more willing to wrestle with them when needed

Me Trusting YOU

There may not be a single more important element to smart, safe, healthy conflict than trust. Trust sets the stage in multiple ways. Let’s start with defining trust in conflict.

If I trust you in a conflict situation then I’m saying, to you and myself, that I feel SAFE with you. That feeling safe, however intangible, is HUGE when it comes to people being willing to stick around in a fight. It means that I don’t expect you to do something terrible to me – physically, emotionally, psychologically. I trust that you won’t fight dirty or say things that wreak havoc on our relationship.

Maybe the most important part of my trusting you in conflict is coming to understand that we’re fighting now, but we’re fighting with the assumption that we’re fighting together – i.e., that we are partnering in this conflict, working to get something productive out of it. It’s a win-win thing.

This is such a fundamental shift in thinking for most people about conflict! We tend to assume conflict is about winning and losing. There can be an element of being right or wrong in a conflict, certainly. But that has to be about a specific point, a piece of information or a perspective. It can’t be about the relationship between the people who are doing the conflict.

There’s one more piece here, one that won’t surprise you: we have to be willing to draw boundaries in that conflict conversation, with that other person. Weirdly enough that’s a part of my trusting you – i.e., I trust you enough to know that I CAN draw boundaries with you. (Permit me to refer you back to the blog post here I conveniently wrote months ago about healthy boundaries, fight rules, that you can adopt to your own service in this work, HERE.)

Most people won’t sit in a chair that they don’t think will hold them. And most people won’t wade into a conflict with someone they haven’t developed a sense of trust with about doing conflict.

You Trusting ME

It works both ways, of course. You have to have a sense that I’m trustworthy enough to wrestle with me, have a conversation where things might get heated, emotions might show up, and where, in a very real sense, you allow yourself to be vulnerable with me.

That’s a word you don’t expect to connect to a business situation, is it? Yet that’s what trust permits, a certain willingness to be vulnerable when things get agitated. We learn early and hard to NOT be vulnerable, to not lower our shields, and especially to not let someone else hurt us.

But that’s what can (and often does) happen in conflict, at least temporarily, or, when we’re just learning how to do conflict skillfully, accidentally/without intention. (OK, sometimes we’re mad enough that it is intentional – but we’re still not seriously setting out to crater the other person.)

It’s my belief and experience that, despite all the good guidelines, well-written books about how to do conflict well and the articles written in the Harvard Business Review about the need for skillful conflict in the workplace, at the end of the day we’re just not willing to trust the person in the conflict we need to have. We’re not willing to do it because we haven’t developed enough trust, in them or ourselves, to engage in that conflict.

You Gotta Trust Me, I Gotta Trust You

So it’s really about trust, this conflict thing. It’s not as measurable as revenue, taxes or salaries, and it’s damn difficult to put on a chart, but it is possibly the most significant element in making any business go – and not the least when it comes to making safe, healthy, productive conflict possible.

In my next post I’m going to give some concrete examples of how this plays out at work (and other places, too), and I’m going to add the third piece of trust that makes conflict work – trusting a process to do conflict skillfully and well.

In the meantime:

  • Who DO you trust enough in your world, work or otherwise, to risk conflict with? WHY do you trust them?

  • Who do you need to risk conflict with, in your world? If they don’t fall into the group you identified in the first question, what specific trust issues make it challenging for you to risk conflict with them? Is it more about them, or more about you?

  • Finally, what is one thing YOU could do to increase your trust/willingness to wade into a difficult conversation with them? What’s one thing THEY could do?


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