4 Ways Conflict Can Be A Good Thing

May 20, 2013

I was traveling on the East Coast for work in March and stayed up way too late one night to finish watching the Mexico vs USA World Cup qualifying game. As soccer so often goes, it was a thrilling match that ended in a tie! …Not my favorite. I tend to be competitive and like to see somebody win, ties don’t do it for me. Just being honest. I don’t always like conflict, but competition is thrilling.

And while we all enjoy a clear win/lose situation on the playing field, the thought of being on the losing side of a conflict at work or at home can leave us anxious, defensive, and discouraged. It doesn’t have to be that way.  

4 ways conflict can be a good thing.

Conflict can be a good thing. Conflict reveals our character and cuts through the politics and posturing. When handled rightly it builds a stronger and more committed team. Here are four key ingredients to beneficial conflict: 

1. Attack the issue and the idea, not the person. This is called ideological conflict and is very different than personal conflict. A team needs to be able to engage in rigorous conflict around the core issues of the business. The ability to do so creates buy-in and the comfort that ideas have been fully vetted from a wide range of perspectives. Sometimes a person is the issue, if so, you better be sure before you take the conflict personal. Unnecesary and repeated personal conflict is exhausting for everyone involved and there comes a point where leaders will tap out and decide to move on, you don’t want to force premature exits of good team members.

2. Debate the subject rigorously. Get all of the difficult stuff out in the open. Even when it’s your idea being debated you need to be willing to look at the downsides; every situation has them. If your idea withstands the scrutiny, it’s more likely to gain genuine support and succeed. When the conflict opportunity isn’t capitalized on, people resort to gossip, personal attacks and other negative responses. These are actually attempts to withdraw from conflict, and they can torpedo the relationship rather than strengthen it. Don’t be afraid of a healthy debate.

3. Develop guidelines for how to respect each other during conflict. Just like a sports competition, good conflict follows rules that minimize injury and promote fairness. Every member involved in conflict must have a clear understanding of those rules and of the purpose behind the discussion. Rules for conflict should cover where conflict takes place, how long, when to take a break, and how to speak to each other. By encouraging respect in the midst of a conflict and avoiding personal attacks, ideological conflicts can solidify relationships. Sometimes a good old fight, argument, or misunderstanding can cement a relationship for the better. But this is only possible when every member of the conflict is committed to resolving the issue respectfully.

4. Don’t be afraid to seek out help. Gracious, humble, wise conflict resolution doesn’t come naturally to most people, so if you feel stuck or afraid to move forward I highly recommend Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It discusses the dynamics of healthy conflict at length. It’s an in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of conflict, and helps leaders find ways to take advantage of relational growth opportunities that come out of conflict. The ability to process conflict could save your situation or at a minimum give you more joy and satisfaction in the midst of your work.

Are you missing out on opportunities for deeper relationships and clear resolution because of an unhealthy fear of conflict?

Do you get defensive and angry during arguments?

How can you change your attitude about conflict so that it brings your team closer together?