How do you know when a relationship is in real danger? When the other person stops talking. Contrary to what many believe, the absence of conflict is not a sign of harmony; it is a sign something is wrong. It is a sign that trust is low, concerns are not being voiced, ideas are not being shared, and people have disengaged. Over time the result of not being heard is always the same—resentment.
Healthy conflict and the debate of ideas is a sign of active engagement. Silence is a sign of disengagement.
Relationships are messy—conflict is good.
Conflict is inherent in human relationships. We have different perspectives, different goals, different ideas—and we will inevitably let each other down because we are imperfect. Healthy conflict is how we work through our differences and collaborate to get to the best solutions. Healthy conflict is good and leads to commitment and engagement. Unhealthy conflict, including avoidance, produces resentment and disengagement.
Why do we avoid conflict?
If conflict is so good, why do we avoid it? Conflict avoidance happens for a variety of reasons. We all are a function of internalized beliefs that drive our behavior. When we allow false narratives to control our thinking, unhealthy behavior is frequently the result. For example, a prior life experience involving toxic conflict can lead us to avoid difficult conversations in the present out of fear of how the other person will react. In this case, unhealthy conflict becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because problems are left to fester.
Likewise, if a person’s identity is wrapped up in being “right”, that person may see differences of opinion as a threat to their significance. This false belief may lead them to engage in unhealthy behaviors to shut down dissenting opinions to coerce agreement, which in turn creates an environment where others are afraid to speak up. What is worse, when they get their way through their coercive behavior, the outcome reinforces their false narrative that their tactics are effective.
High performing teams embrace conflict.
A high performing team encourages healthy conflict because conflict that leads to people feeling heard is crucial to gaining commitment. However, how we handle conflict matters. When we enter high-stakes conversations taking 100% Responsibility for ourselves, practicing empathy, treating the other person with respect, and having humility, conflict is highly likely to be healthy. When we approach those same conversations with an attitude of wanting to win an argument to defeat the other person, conflict is likely be unhealthy.
An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything. —Lynn Johnston
Strong leaders create a safe environment for conflict.
Strong leaders are humble and welcome healthy conflict. What is more, they coach team members to do the same. They hear concerns and suggestions as a sign of engagement and ask clarifying questions to understand the other person. Weak leaders are insecure and hear concerns and suggestions as a threat to their positional authority.
Working on your attitude toward conflict.
Take time to examine your own attitude toward conflict. Our posture going into conflict is the determining factor in whether conflict will be healthy or not. What this means is to become effective handling conflict, we must change how we think and who we are in conflict. Here are some practical ways to work on your effectiveness:
Practice 100% Responsibility and be quick to take ownership for your actions and reactions—learn how to make a good apology
Be humble—recognize that you do not have all the answers and likely missing important facts
Demonstrate empathy—ask curious questions and listen for understanding
Always treat others with respect—even when you may believe they do not deserve your respect
Extend trust by assuming good intent—give the other person the benefit of doubt
Build high trust relationships to create the right conditions for healthy conflict
Start mapping your own culture transformation journey:
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