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Why We Need Conflict (and Conflict Skills) in the Workplace

(Originally published August 27, 2019)

I don’t really understand boxing or MMA fighting. When I say I don’t understand it I mean I don’t get why people would willingly wade into a ring and merrily hammer on each other, inflict injury on each other. It has, for most of my life, seemed crazy!

But, given recent changes in interests and activities at my local gym, I’ve started to meet some boxers and MMA style fighters. As a result I have begun to appreciate the skill, balance and capability that can come from the practice of learning to fight well. As one of my gym friends puts it, “it’s nice to think I could take care of myself if someone came at me”. I can understand the appeal of that self-confidence.

(You still won’t find me racing out to sign up for a boxing class, fyi.)

I could quite possibly go the rest of my life and never get in a fistfight – my last one, if memory serves, was in junior high school. But I also know this: there’s no way I can escape conflict - relational, verbal conflict. It is one of the great truths of my professional discipline, Speech Communication, that all relationships of any length and seriousness will have conflict, in one form or another (manager-employee, co-worker-co-worker, parent-child, husband-wife, you name it).

So here’s something that we could all profitably learn: conflict, in and of itself, isn’t bad, dangerous or destructive. It is how we manage conflict that can get us in trouble – or give us invaluable information, thinking, skills and growth. In learning to do conflict skillfully and well we can gain a self-confidence at work and in our relationships that is nothing short of remarkable.

I know, that sounds crazy, at least to a lot of people. But the funny part of that sounding crazy is that most of us also have evidence to the contrary of our fears – i.e., most of us have been through conflict situations where communication improved, problems were solved, tempers managed and relationships strengthened.

The key, like I said, is how we go about doing conflict. There’s not a lot to understand, but there are basics that are essential, and there is a need for practice. Yeah, we have to practice doing conflict to get good at it.

So what HAVE we learned about conflict? Some of us learned that it was flat-out destructive – to teams, to personal relationships, to careers, you name it. Of course we were seeing badly-managed conflict – insults, personal attacks, perhaps screaming or yelling, things said that shouldn’t have been said anywhere, anytime, etc.

Some of us learned that conflict is selfish, heedless, nothing that civilized people would do. A parallel view is that conflict is immature, childish, something that adults simply don’t do. And still others among us see conflict as a failure of reason, logic, clear thinking, and an admission that only something “primitive” like direct conflict is the last resort.

One result of thinking like this is how artful we get at avoiding conflict. Given these sorts of assumptions it isn’t surprising! We do different things when faced with the potential of conflict. We can become very anxious, changing the subject, lapsing into silence or even finding a pretext to flee the room.

(Who reading this hasn’t experienced that vastly uncomfortable, very awkward silence that descends upon a room when conflict is simmering in the background, but nobody wants to name the tiger? Yikes. Time to go to boxing class...)

Some of us can get very angry, going on the offensive and avoiding the conflict by being the upset, angry person in the room first. (Some of this banks on the awkward silence I just mentioned, the willingness of many people to do anything to avoid conflict.)

Some of us get very passive-aggressive – sneaking around the issue, referencing it in a sideways manner, but also deftly avoiding any direct confrontation of the issue or person. This kind of response to potential conflict can wreak a great deal of havoc in its own right, leaving people with a sense of a simmering resentment that can’t quite be reached or addressed.

Of course the results of all these ways of avoiding conflict can leave individuals and teams demoralized, shut down, often crippled in their work output and even damaging client and vendor relationships.

I’ll say it again: it isn’t about conflict being the problem. Conflict is necessary. We each bring different histories, training, education and experience to our lives, and we each have a host of assumptions and beliefs, often very different from the person next to us. Conflict is inevitable, and the team that can do conflict with any degree of skill is a healthier, more agile, more creative and more productive group than the team that can’t.

It’s all about skills, and a willingness to, now and again, be a little uncomfortable as we learn to manage those skills. (OK, maybe at the beginning we’re seriously uncomfortable, but trust me, it gets much better.) In my next blog post I’ll share my favorite definition of conflict, and offer my preferred tools for people learning to wade into conflict.

Food for Thought:

What’s one conflict you really need to have, but it rocks your world to think about having it?

What’s your worst memory of personal conflict?

What’s your best memory of a conflict that resolved well?


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