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How to embrace constructive conflict

How to Embrace Constructive Conflict

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How do I feel about conflict?

Check in with your emotions

Check in with your story

Think win-win

Role model desired behaviors

Ensure alignment: recap your perception of the conversation

Show appreciation

Create a culture of conversation

Most of us intuitively know that having honest and constructive dialogue can benefit our workplace relationships and organizational outcomes. Yet, few of us know how to effectively move into this space without feeling confrontational.

For others to feel encouraged to speak up, it turns out, leaders must demonstrate confidence in their own abilities and actively embrace constructive conflict.  To do so, you must create an environment that’s safe for interpersonal risk taking before you can expect people to speak up. This type of environment doesn’t always develop organically, so you’ll want to be aware of and consciously avoid the potential pitfalls by focusing on how you’re showing up yourself. Ethan Burris’ research uncovered that leaders may undermine their efforts to get people to challenge the status quo by giving lower performance reviews as a form of retaliation. He also found leaders with low managerial self-efficacy are “less likely to solicit input, leading to lower levels of employee voice.”

Social learning theory suggests that individuals learn through observation and modeling. To model constructive communication and have it take hold in your organizations, you must embrace vulnerability by initiating this behavior yourself. Many of us have successfully progressed in our careers while sidestepping invitations for vulnerability. But at what cost? The opportunity cost of choosing not to share our viewpoints can involve:

  • The loss of diverse contribution for the organization and
  • The loss of feeling truly valued as an individual

Learning to model constructive communication skills can pay off by leading to the creation of a more open and inclusive culture.  

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How do I feel about conflict?

I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.  – Mark Twain

How do you experience your viewpoint being challenged? To many people it feels like conflict. And conflict itself can be defined and experienced in many ways. A disagreement can be confronted (I’ll show you), it can be a constructive conversation willingly engaged in (let’s sort this out together) or it can be a battlefield to be feared and avoided at all costs (I can’t do this). How my clients define conflict often defines how they engage with it. And I’ve observed their experience to be highly predicated by their thoughts and emotions around conflict.   

The first step is to ask yourself is: how do I feel about conflict?

I’ll Show You → Let’s do this together → I can’t do this

The next step is to figure out how you landed there.

Check in with your emotions

Research has shown that the more positive we feel, “the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.

We are built with emotions for important reasons: they provide us with important information, even in the context of work relationships. Unfortunately, few of us have been taught to effectively navigate and check in with our emotions as a business tool.  

When you reflect upon past instances in which you were faced with a differing viewpoint, what emotion was most often present for you?

  • Aggressive Emotions: Distrustful, resentful, angry
  • Positive Receptive Emotions: Confident, curious, optimistic
  • Avoidant Emotions: fearful, vulnerable, uncertain

The optimal emotional space for a constructive conversation is in experiencing receptive positive emotions. Research has shown that the more positive we feel, “the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.”

Check in with your story

In my coaching sessions, I’ve found that we make a lot of assumptions about what other people are thinking, and then act on those assumptions as though they are truths/facts. And thanks to the negativity bias, our brain does a much better job of fixating on threats than seeing opportunities. Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, has written extensively about cognitive distortions, which play a key role in skewing our “read” of a situation and causing us to believe that what we feel “must be true.”

This can be a barrier to leaders’ willingness to engage in constructive conversation. When we try to make sense of the situation, we can create a story through a negative lens, one that influences our experience of conflict to the extremes (“I’ll show you” OR “I can’t do this”). You may be surprised to discover that we create details (perceived to be facts) about the situation that don’t even exist. Here’s an example:

Assumption: “Jane doesn’t want to run the additional data analysis because she doesn’t care about the impact to our customers; she just wants the project completed in time for her upcoming performance review.”  

Truth: We don’t know why Jane disagrees on running the data analysis because we never actually asked her.

In seeking to understand your emotional state, check in with what thoughts are streaming through your mind around the situation. I often suggest to my clients that they write their thoughts out on paper. Words seem to have more insight once we get them out of our heads.

Our thoughts create our current experience, but thoughts are just thoughts – they’re not necessarily fact or the truth. Katie Byron’s 4 Questions are great for testing out our potentially faulty thinking. I would suggest working through these questions for each of the thoughts you have written down.  

  • Is it true? (i.e. is this thought true?)
  • Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do you react when you believe that thought?
  • Who would you be without that thought?  

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. – Wayne Dyer

Some of us also make assumptions about how deserving we are as people to contribute to the conversation. As a result, our inner dialogue can stream insecurities that prevent us from speaking up. “I am not a worthy enough member of the team to challenge the status quo” or “Who am I to upset the apple cart?” In this case, it may be helpful to look outside of yourself. I find those paralyzed in speaking for themselves can ferociously assert on the behalf of others. Ask yourself – who else that I care about is being impacted? If your teammates are also feeling overwhelmed and under resourced to take on a new project, you may find the courage through them to voice your concerns and be a part of figuring out a better solution.

Think win-win

Our frame of mind is key to shifting conversations from confrontational to constructive. In addition to coaching my clients to enter conversations with positive intent, I encourage them to choose a win-win mindset. There are four common negotiation strategies which I relate to the conflict mindsets:

  • “I”ll Show You” = You Lose, They Win or You Win, They Lose where one party is out to get their way at all costs, to the detriment of the working relationship
  • “I can’t do this” = You Lose, They Lose. If we choose to avoid conflict or sharing our differing views on something, you lose in having your needs go unmet and we both lose out on the diversity of perspective.
  • “Let’s do this together” = Win-Win. This is where we want to be. “The aim of win-win negotiations (or mindsets) is to find a solution that is acceptable to both parties, and leaves both parties feeling that they’ve won, in some way, after the event (discussion).”

Win-Win outcomes can be attained when we believe in their possibility and are best navigated when we come prepared. Fred Kofman recommends coming into a conversation with a BATNA, or “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.”Having a clear understanding of your BATNA is key, but Fred says you should always be working to improve it.

In advance of the constructive conversation, try to think up as many possible outcomes that would meet your needs and interests, as well as those of the other party. Ask yourself, “what else would help me to feel more aligned or onboard with this issue?” This worksheet can be helpful in preparing for a win-win mindset.

Role model desired behaviors

After you’ve taken the time to check in with yourself and have done your homework to prepare for a win-win approach, set an intention to role model the positive behaviors you believe will lead to a constructive conversation.

  • Respectful engagement – engage in a way that conveys the value and self-worth of others.
  • Trusting – express yourself in a way that shows people that you believe they care, are dependable, and will meet your expectations to the best of their abilities.

If at any point you feel the conversation has derailed too far from your intended constructive conversation into a zone of uncomfortable confrontation, voice your concern and respectfully request a short breather or to reschedule.

Ensure alignment: recap your perception of the conversation

Take 5 or 10 minutes at the end of your constructive conversation for each of you to recap your understanding, agreed upon decisions, and any next steps around actions, accountabilities, or follow-up required. You may also want to appoint one person to send a short email of the recap.

If your review uncovers a continued misalignment, openly discuss what options you would be open to resume bridging the gap.

Show appreciation

If you assessed the conversation as successfully constructive, thank your teammate for their contribution. You may even want to “praise to the back” (opposite of being stabbed in the back) and let others know about the great constructive conversation you had. Praise to the back will eventually echo back to your teammate.

Create a culture of conversation

As leaders, it is important for us to recognize the role we play in creating a culture where our teammates feel comfortable contributing to conversation – especially when they are putting forth a diverse viewpoint. I hope that you feel encouraged that this is a skill you can develop. 

Original art by Theo Payne.