Engaging In Healthy Conflict
(this is a follow up to my earlier post, upon further reflection...)
We are taught and even encouraged to avoid conflict, sometimes at all costs. It doesn’t feel natural to many of us and if we can find a path around it, we will often go to extremes to take that route. To the point that we will sometimes let issues fester until they boil over, at that point in likely an unproductive manner. Yet conflict, if approached from the right perspective can actually be a healthy form of communication. It can produce constructive results and drive forward progress. If we approach it correctly.
As a high school freshman, our daughter has had her ups and downs, highs and lows. Earlier in the school year, a missed assignment or a missed class often led to a downward spiral of events, making the hole that she needed to climb out of deeper and wider. Over the last several weeks, we have seen significant progress on many fronts, most importantly seeing a growth in her self-confidence. Then, there was this one teacher, a very tenured, very traditional, and very strict teacher. When my daughter froze while being asked a question, this teacher interpreted it as “disrespectful” and in her extended hand wasn’t help or support, instead it was a detention slip. Which caused our daughter to slip for the rest of the day, questioning the progress she had made.
We reached out to the teacher and determined fault on both sides. Believing the teacher was likely immovable, we coached our daughter to take responsibility for what she could and should and adapt to what this teacher was expecting and do her best. We explained that just because a person is in a position of authority, it does not always make them right, and she would face this her entire life. Her detention was to be served during lunch, which she intended to do, attempted to do, then froze. She came home, talked to her mom about her struggle, then the girl who communicates by only SMS and Instagram sat down and wrote her teacher an email. A rather lengthy email. Explaining her side of the story, with respect. Admitting her faults and challenges, while letting the teacher know that she wanted to her side of the story as well. The next day, our daughter followed up with the teacher at lunch and walked the halls with her as the teacher admitted she had experienced the same struggles growing up. The conflict turned into a mutual level of understanding and appreciation and the detention slip in the teacher’s extended hand was exchanged with an offer to help.
In everyday life, I see times where we face a challenging situation, a challenging individual, and instead of facing the conflict, we seek to avoid it. Work around it. Even reduce the situation to a point where we mock or insult the individual or team within a different group behind the person’s back, never addressing the situation head on. As a leader, I have at times been guilty of pulling larger groups together to discuss concerns, rather than face and discuss specific concerns head on with those who may be causing the issues.
The truth is, this rarely works.
What is more productive is to seek to understand and resolve. Starting from the position that conflict doesn’t mean “I am right, you are wrong”, but instead a disagreement that needs to be resolved, and in fact, you may be in the wrong. We may avoid conflict because we don’t want to face the reality that in fact, we have a shared responsibility with what has taken place. We fall into the trap of seeking to explain our point of view, rather than seeking to understand the other side.
When we look to avoid conflict rather than resolve it, we often let it build to the point that when it finally comes to a head, we fill the deep hole that has been created with all of the other issues that we have been storing up for so long, that nothing productive can come from it. I call that “adding logs to the fire”, when you are finally at the breaking point that you address the conflict, and once the fire is started, you use this as an opportunity to throw every single issue you have ever had until the fire burns out of control. Not productive. Trust me, I've been to that bonfire many times.
Sometimes you need to address something immediately, but if you have the ability to, it is helpful to prepare for the conversation. Reflect on the situation, not only your point of view, but your role in where you find yourself. You may find that you are more at fault than you realized. Or, you may do what our daughter did, which was to take the opportunity to explain your point of view, while being open to understanding where the other person is coming from.
There are situations where the “compliment sandwich” may seem appropriate, you know, say something nice – here is what you need to work on – and hey, love those shoes! The problem is that when you go down this path, when you try a less direct approach, what you are trying to address can get muddled. Be direct. Respectful, but direct, with an open mind and active listening skills ensuring that your words and your body language show that while this is a tough situation, you likely both want the same outcome.
Finally, don’t make it personal. It is too easy to stand firm on our position and go for the cheap shot, as if the personal attack is going to make the situation better. Or conversely, if we are given feedback during the conversation, it is too easy to take it personally and let this cloud our judgement. Instead, if we face potential conflict in a healthy, respectful and direct manner, we may just avoid some of the deeper holes that we eventually have to deal in a far more difficult manner and with likely a less productive outcome.
(You can follow me @rhoniball or connect with me at www.honiball.me.)