Why Conflicts are good

by Peter Müller & Stefanie Bradish / May 20th 2019

Where people work together sooner or later conflicts arise. Many of us feel uneasy in conflicting situations. This is often caused by the inability to constructively handle them. To avoid this uneasiness, conflicts are avoided - which leads to much more unconstructive thing altogether: artificial harmony.

Artificial harmony means that instead of having a clarifying conflict, we invest a lot of time and energy in working around conflicts or use soft statements to avoid confrontations with each other. During that time when conflicts remain hidden in the background they are fed by small bits-and-pieces. Pieces like things that happen or do not happen. Or things said or not said. Eventually, the pressure of the conflict is so high, that the next small event causes it to explode. Like family feuds or neighborly disputes, unresolved conflicts at work can survive for years.

Most of us may have already experienced that kind of situation: Someone suddenly bursting out in anger and leaving us puzzled, wondering about where on earth that came from. And later on, when the conflict is not clarified or resolved, that sudden, unexpected explosion can leave us with the worry of triggering that reaction again. Depending on one’s personality we tend to either excuse ourselves (“Ah, not my fault. He’s just having a bad day.”) or the other party (“Oh, no. I really messed this up!”) In any case we become a prisoner of our defensive strategy to avoid to have that kind of confrontation again. Handling conflicts well on the other hand would free us as defensive strategies cost a lot of time and energy. It also would lower the risk of accidentally feeding hidden conflicts. And, last but not least, it would open up the doors to enjoy the benefits and positive effects of our collaboration with others.

Powers of Conflicts

When people do have the ability to handle conflicts, it is possible to find mutually agreed solutions so that the needs of all participating parties can be satisfied, a win-win situation. Additionally, the ability of handling conflicts enables positive effects [1] [2]:

  • Foster creativity and finding solutions outside of one’s comfort zone. Although I might not agree with it, I can try to understand the arguments of the other person. This probably lets me see things I’ve not yet seen, which might show me alternative ways to solve the conflict.

  • Clarification of boundaries (or the ability to say “No”). It is important to know how far we can go, what is acceptable and what is not when interacting with people. For example, clarification of responsibilities (or better: expectations) is an essential part in team growing (storming and norming in Tuckman’s model of stages in group development [3]).

  • Lower risk of passive aggression. Conflicts that boil beneath the surface have an (often unconscious) impact on our communication. You sense the underlying tension of your counterpart or, if the hidden conflict is on your side, you send subtle (often non-verbal) messages that there is something unsaid between the two of you. This aggression under the surface can be avoided if conflicts are openly discussed and clarified.

  • Deeper trust and mutual respect between both parties. If I enter a conflict constructively, I will show what is important to me and what hurts or threatens me. I will open myself up and show my own vulnerability. Same applies for the other person. If both parties can solve their conflict, they will learn a lot about the respective other person while doing so. This can have a positive effect and lead to mutual respect and trust.

  • Relieve from bondage of a person and issue so that individual independence can grow. Each time I’m able to clarify a conflict, it relieves me from a burden. It takes a heavy weight off my mind and hence gives me more freedom. I no longer need to invest energy in finding cautious formulations or building up my defense. Instead I can focus on effectively and efficiently reaching my goals.

  • Possibility to grow personally, mentally, emotionally. The more I’m able to solve conflicts in a constructive way the more I learn how to master crucial conversations and confrontations [4] [5]. I will learn more about myself, about my personality and how I interact constructively with other personalities. This will let me grow as an individual.

Required Attitudes and Abilities

Handling conflicts well requires specific attitudes and abilities:

  • Accept there is conflict. Don’t repress a bad feeling you have in a situation which is caused by a certain behavior of another person. Accept that there might be a conflict and take responsibility [6] to clarify it.

  • Be honest: What’s your part in the conflict? A conflict requires at least two parties to escalate. Self-awareness and knowledge about how you act and the effect this has to others helps here.

  • Listen to your heart do you really – REALLY – want to mutually find a solution that meets the need for all involved parties? This requires the ability to self-reflect and to be honest to yourself.

  • Develop and practice the skills for good communication and problem solving to enable conflict clarification. This especially implies the ability to listen emphatically, to communicate at eye level and to use non-threatening language.

What you can do

We fear the unknown and few of us have explicitly learnt what a conflict is, how it escalates or how to handle it in a constructive way. Here are some ideas what you can do to learn more about yourself, the people around you and how to communicate in conflict situations:

  • Visit a conflict management seminar Some, not just one. Good seminars raise your awareness about how daily communication can already lead to initial sources for conflicts and how you participate in conflict escalation. “Being aware” is the very first step to change and improve your behavior in conflict situations.

  • Convince your team to visit a respective seminar together. This is a very good opportunity to learn in a safe environment how each of you and your team mates act and react in conflicting situations.

  • Learn more about yourself Understanding how you behave in crucial situations and how to identify that you’re about to jump into a conflict can help you to find deescalating strategies even before a conflict gets hot [7].

  • Learn Non-violent Communication [8]. Understanding how to formulate thoughts, opinions, statements and concerns in a non-violating way reduces massively the risk of conflict escalation.

To learn more about conflicts, how they develop and escalate:

  • Friedrich Glasl’s model of conflict escalation [9]. This model identifies nine escalation stages of conflicts, grouped in to three levels of three stages each. The first level (stages 1 to 3) is also called win-win level, as in these stages conflict participants are still interested to find a mutually agreed solution (win-win level). In the second level (stages 4 to 6) the conflict acerbated more so that at least one participant develops the attitude to win whereas others should lose (win-lose level). Finally, the third level (stages 7 to 9) means that personal damage is accepted in order to let the opponents los(lose-lose level). Being able to identify on which stage your conflict is provides you with information how to approach its clarification. For example, conflicts in higher stages require external moderation or even professional mediation due to loss of mutual respect and appreciation of the involved conflict parties.
  • SCARF [10]. This model identifies five social triggers namely Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness which can either be rewarded or threatened in social interactions. Even a rather simple interaction might already trigger one or many of them in a threatening way. For example, the (well-mentioned) question “May I give feedback?” might trigger Status in a negative way, so that the addressed person reacts in a defensive or even aggressive way. Knowing about these triggers and how to avoid building a threatening environment helps to avoid escalation of conflicts. Especially, the better you know how the other person values each of these triggers, the better you’re able to adapt your communication style to the person’s personal characteristics. That’s why in teams building trust between team members is so important. It is trust which allows us to open up and invite others to get to know us.

Summary

Being able to handle conflicts constructively offers great possibilities to foster collaboration:

  • It allows to find alternative and maybe better solutions.
  • It clarifies boundaries in a team, thriving team growing.
  • It reduces passive aggression behavior and therefore leads to a more relaxed way of communication.
  • It helps us to spend energy and time on productive tasks rather than building up a defensive strategy.
  • It lets us grow personally, mentally, and emotionally.

References

  1. B. A. Duffield, "10 Reasons Why Conflict Can Be Good," 01 Jul 2011. [Online]. Available: http://thesop.org/story/20110701/10-reasons-why-conflict-can-be-good.html. [Accessed 31 Mar 2019].

  2. T. Gilbertson, "3 Reasons Why Conflict Can Be Good For Relationships," 26 Jan 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/constructive-wallowing/201601/3-reasons-why-conflict-can-be-good-relationships?amp. [Accessed 31 Mar 2019].

  3. Wikipedia, "Tuckman's stages of group development," 29 Jan 2019. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckman%27s_stages_of_group_development. [Accessed 07 Apr 2019].

  4. K. Patterson, J. Grenny, R. McMillan and A. Switzler, Crucial Conversations: tools for talking when stakes are high, McGraw-Hill, 2002.

  5. K. Patterson, J. Grenny, R. McMillan and A. Switzler, Crucial Confrontations: Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior, McGraw-Hill, 2005.

  6. C. Avery, "The Responsibility Process," [Online]. Available: https://www.christopheravery.com/responsibility-process. [Accessed 31 Mar 2019].

  7. J. Tamm, "Want better Collaboration? Don't be so defensive! (KEYNOTE)," Agile Alliance, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://vimeo.com/154757051. [Accessed 22 Apr 2019].

  8. M. B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 2nd ed., PuddleDancer Press, 2003.

  9. Wikipedia, "Friedrich Glasl's model of conflict escalation," 27 Jan 2018. [Online]. Available:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Glasl's_model_of_conflict_escalation. [Accessed 31 Mar 2019].

  10. D. Rock, "SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others," NeuroLeadership Journal, no. 1, pp. 1-9, 2008.

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