Conflict is a charged word. It’s generally seen as negative and unnerving. However, conflict is inevitable and often beneficial.
We often learn, grow and get stronger from conflict. Whether it be conflict with others that pushes a shared project to greater heights, or conflict with ourselves, which drives us to the next goal or area of growth.
For many, this is a tough skill to build. Conflict tends to be scary, unpredictable and draining, often pushing us to uncomfortable places. While conflict can be emotionally charged and exhausting, it’s also necessary in order to improve and discover the best solution to a problem. Furthermore, conflict is often unavoidable, so it’s important to build skills to deal with it effectively.
Introducing ‘Conflict Affinity’
Conflict Avoidance is a way of reacting to conflict by attempting to avoid directly confronting something or someone. This is often done by changing the subject, postponing a discussion or simply avoiding the subject of contention.
When we hear of conflict, we generally associate this negative connotation.
Thus the term Conflict Affinity — being strong at managing conflict when it does arise. Conflict is often helpful; we should aspire to become better at it. We should be able to disagree and argue in search of truth, while avoiding the negative side-effects that are often associated with conflict.
Don’t shy away from conflict — often, the correct move is to seek it out. An article in Harvard Business Review, titled Why We Should be Disagreeing More at Work, details the benefits of conflict, including opportunities to learn and grow, improved relationships, higher job satisfaction and a more inclusive work environment.
Additionally, conflict leads to a higher quality of work and better outcomes. We all have blind spots, conflict allows others to help see and mitigate the impacts of our blind areas. We can consider more opinions and different perspectives, which leads to better outcomes.
Finally, there is no such thing as a conflict-free work environment. If you have to deal with conflict, you may as well become better at it.
Behaviors to foster good conflict
Empathy is one of the strongest skills a human can build. This allows you to understand the other argument. You can consider if you may be incorrect or reframe your argument to help meet the other person’s concerns.
Empathy allows us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. In order to construct the best (i.e. most compelling) argument, it’s vital to understand what the other person cares about and values.
Empathy goes hand in hand with kindness. If you can empathize with someone, you may realize that while you’re right, you don’t need to be an asshole.
Psychological safety is defined as a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.
Fostering psychological safety has been linked to increased team performance. It also creates an environment where team members feel more comfortable disagreeing or voicing their opinions. In fact, a study run by Google showed that psychological safety was the most critical factor for high-performing collaborative teams.
Be vigilant about creating an environment where everyone’s opinions are valued and no one is denigrated or punished for dissent. Your team will be better for it.
Sliding Scale of Giving a F@$%
Cap Watkins outlines an anecdote about an argument he had with an engineer. After arguing intensely for a few minutes about a detail of a design, the engineer asked a simple question that reframed how Watkins saw arguments:
“How strongly do you feel on a scale of a 1–10 about this?”
When someone else cares strongly, and you don’t feel as intensely about the subject, it may be better to defer. Although you might be sacrificing some sense of perfectionism, it’s more efficient and better for team harmony.
Steel Man Argument
The best way to argue kindly is take on your opponents strongest arguments, not their weakest ones. This is referred to as steel-manning an argument.
Approaching the strongest arguments shows that you’re actually considering the other point of view, rather than being rigid and stubborn. You’re much more likely to convince someone if you’re directly addressing their strongest points.
Additionally, you may find value in parts of the argument. Combining two ideas often leads to innovation, so it’s beneficial to try to find value everywhere.
Things to avoid
‘Winning’ the Argument
You’re searching for the optimal solution or decision, not an ego boost. If you’re a competitive person, this might be tough, but essential. Are you hoping to dominate, or learn?
If you do happen to be ‘right,’ remember to practice kindness and empathy. Remind yourself, you’re on the same team and you’re fighting a war, not a battle.
Emotions over Outcomes
Our emotions often cloud our decision making. People will do all sorts of ridiculous things to avoid looking incompetent or wrong.
If you find the person you’re in conflict with is becoming defensive or agitated, work to diffuse the tension. Arguing without emotions is difficult, so practice patience with others. It can be helpful to offer time to digest and reflect before asking for a response. Not everyone thinks clearly when put on the spot.
Additionally, it’s important to avoid lingering conflict. Check in at the end of a conflict to see how both parties are feeling.
Worrying about being Liked
Hurting someone’s feelings is a common reason people cite when they are avoiding conflict. This is an instance of something that seems kind in the short term, which is actually detrimental in the long-term.
By no means, do I advocate attempting to be unlikable, but one of the kindest things you can do for another human is giving respectful, honest feedback. By not sharing constructive criticisms, you’re suppressing good feedback that could make your initiative that much better.
This is likely the hardest hurdle in the path to having better conflict — but definitely achievable with kindness, empathy and respect.
Examples of Good Conflict
Agile Retrospectives are used by teams to reflect on how they’ve been working and to continuously become better.
A big goal of retrospectives is identifying what’s not working, which can cause conflict. Retrospectives create an environment and framework for conflict to be identified and resolved. Often times, at the start of a retrospective, the Prime Directive is read:
Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.
The Prime Directive is a form of priming, which helps guide responses in a Retrospective to be kinder and more productive. Instead of attacking other team members, it is openly acknowledged that everyone is trying their best — which invariably leads to more constructive feedback.
Creative fields often have systemized way to share feedback and handle conflict. For designers, this is paramount, as Design Critiques help guide the team to a common vision and provide a forum for kind yet pointed feedback.
When a designer presents their work, they have to set the context and ask for others to help identify their blind spots. Hearing negative feedback can be hard to take at first, but will lead to more optimal solutions.
A framework can be very helpful in managing conflict. Knowing when to broach a topic causes anxiety, so knowing there is a dedicated forum and time to address issues is very helpful.
Conflict is hard. But pursuing good conflict at work is important. We spend many of our waking hours at our jobs. As an engineer from the earlier Google article summarizes:
‘‘But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’
Pursue good conflict. Get better at managing conflict. Build your conflict affinity. You may find yourself more fulfilled at work and closer to better solutions.
Do you have conflicting opinions?