Can Conflict Be Good?

Can Conflict Be Good?

“I don’t think we can say that some people are impossible to engage with on the basis of the views they hold.  What I do believe, though, is that some people are impossible to engage with because of the way they disagree”.

Recently I have been reading Conflicted by journalist Ian Leslie, fascinated by the idea that conflict can actually improve our lives. Although the idea of embracing conflict may seem counter-intuitive to our wellbeing, you have to concede he has a point.

Most of us do anything we can to avoid conflict, but Leslie suggests that instead, conflict can lead to empathy and insight.  It is only through conflict that we create change and in fact, change our minds.  Conflict is honest, it is dynamic and occasionally even the root of progress.

Initially he starts by looking at couples – couples who have disagreements and air and discuss their differences. Research showed after a year had passed, these couples had a greater sense of satisfaction with their relationship than couples who avoided conflict about things that matter.  In this case, honesty – although perhaps painful in the moment – allowed for growth and thus greater connection.

In the workplace we need to create trust so that conflict around ideas is welcomed and discussed with interest.  This is how we create innovation and change.  Leslie uses Socrates as an example for this, who invited debate with anyone and everyone in Ancient Greece, because he saw debating ideas as a way to get smarter. Hearing opposing viewpoints to your own and evaluating them is one way to do that, as we saw in The Scout Mindset.

However Leslie does suggest that successful conflict, conflict that gets resolved and achieves something, depends upon how we experience conflict with others.  In layman’s terms – we have to fight fair in order for conflict to ultimately be positive.  Thus, Leslie proposes the rules of productive argument.   Many of these are simple and incredibly useful for us in our personal lives, and also in navigating professional spaces.  I’ll go through a few below:

First Connect

In order for conflict to not be taken personally, we must ensure we connect with the other person on an individual level.  Conflict should not be our only interaction with them.  This should occur both in the situation at hand and outside of it – a particularly good tip for managers or for working with a colleague we find difficult.

“Giving face” can be a powerful way to do this.  This is about ensuring you meet your conversation partner at an equal level. Nelson Mandela was an expert at this.  When he had difficult conversations with political opponents, he made them a cup of tea PERSONALLY, and asked them questions about themselves and their viewpoints first. As we know, Mandela was able to achieve the virtually impossible in uniting a country torn by institutionalized racism – a feat none of the subsequent Presidents have been able to match.  His emotional intelligence was unparalleled, and allowed him to turn enemies into allies. There are some great examples of this in the book.

Let Go Of Controlling the Other Person’s Reaction

Much of our fear of conflict comes from uncertainty about how others will react.  This occasionally leads us to pull back on communication that might be vitally important to our personal happiness or professional progress.

While it is good to be mindful to approach an issue with another in a thoughtful way, we have to understand that we cannot control how they will respond.  And this should not determine whether the issue is addressed or not.

Check Your WEIRD-Ness

WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.  Many of us live in worlds with values highly coloured by our society and environment – but not everyone else does.  When dealing with people from other cultures, it is good to understand how their worldview and values may differ from yours.  Therefore, sources of conflict can be avoided.

Set Norms for Debate

If you are going to seriously debate/discuss or even argue about an issue, set norms to ensure this remains fair, open and in control.

Also be open to deviating from usual norms if they are not working… if things are getting heated, take a break, make a joke, bring in the pet and so on!

Get Curious

Conflict occasionally comes from a fear of being wrong, or a desire to hold on to what we know.  But if we embrace curiosity we see a conflict of views (which may never result in an interpersonal conflict) as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Make Wrong Strong

There is nothing wrong with being wrong – remember that in The Scout Mindset Julia Gallef said that instead of being wrong, you should remind yourself that you were simply not fully accurate in terms of your map of the situation.

If you are wrong, apologise swiftly and with humility.  This isn’t weak.  It’s strong.  And you are smarter and better off for having corrected your thinking!

Only Get Mad on Purpose

Teachers are masters of this rule (although I am probably telling trade secrets here!).

Getting mad can represent a loss of control and makes us to things we later regret.  But getting mad on purpose, knowing you are doing so strategically, can show passion and a reaction to injustice.  It can be strategically used to make a point.


So now you know the rules for effective and respectful conflict… will you address some things that have been bothering you???

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