I never thought I would use Donald Trump as an example, and on election day too! Unlike many or most of us, he doesn’t shy away from conflict. He is incredibly strategic, self-serving and political in the way he embraces conflict.
It does raise the question for me though as to why we seem to believe that conflict is inherently bad and to be avoided at all costs. Is it really bad? Or is our view of it getting in the way of our use of conflict?
In the west we seem to be raised to believe conflict is bad but, paradoxically, we are socialized to hold to our view in what we euphemistically call a discussion but soon becomes an argument – we are socialized to make ourselves right and others wrong in these situations and we grow an inability to accommodate multiple points of view in the ‘discussion’ and world views generally. No wonder we don’t enjoy these ‘discussions’ and try to avoid them.
Yet, these ‘discussions’ are potentially the embryo or touchstone of new creative solutions, if we allow them to mature (or is it us that need to mature?) into proper discussions. How many ideas with even a little potential do we dismiss outright (because they don’t fit in with our argument) instead of using them as steppingstones to something greater?
Of course, there’s another possible by-product of avoiding conflict, a by-product that is often less evident in the moment, where we might, not necessarily consciously, get our way passively rather than actively. Passive aggression may be passive, but it’s no less aggressive no matter what story we tell ourselves.
So, what might be a better way for us to deal with conflict, potential or otherwise? Here are a few ways you might explore:
- Distinguishing between the “what” and the “how”: We often merge these two aspects of the views we hold. For example, our boss gives us the smallest of raises when we believe we hit all our KPAs and we don’t confront him about it because he will just get angry with us. The “what” is normally our ‘business case’, the principle involved – objectively speaking, do we deserve a bigger raise? If we do, then the “how” is about how we approach our boss. If we go in all guns blazing, we are bound to get our fire returned and not get that bigger cheque at the end of the month. There is a huge growth area here for most of us – how do we learn to influence others and how do we get better at is as we climb the ladder? How do we move away from our normal one-size-fits-all approach to influencing and use a more situationally appropriate way? So, explore distinguishing between the “what” and the “how” instead of merging them as your standard way of (not) responding.
- Using conflict as a touchstone: So, we are in a (virtual) meeting, and John and Susan are starting to irritate or frustrate each other again as neither is listening to the other. The rest of us start multitasking, doing anything to avoid getting involved. Yet, this is a perfect moment for everyone to learn, not only about the content of the argument but, more importantly, how as a group and as individuals we can be better and better at how we hold discussions – how we can grow and develop what the protagonists are putting on the table? Someone needs to have the presence of mind to halt the hostilities with kindness, by turning everyone’s attention to the process by asking a question such as, “How can we do this better?” or “How can we explore this dynamic to get really creative?” or (my particular favourite) “How can we use all our views to come up with something that is better than all our views put together?”
- Building on what I have already said, habitually ask this question at the end of every meeting and every ‘discussion’: “How can we do this even better next time?”
Let’s get into the habit of finding ways to grow our ideas and our solutions together.
Finally, a cautionary note: please understand that the examples I use and commentary I provide are largely anecdotal and based on my observations of and experience with numerous clients over 20 years. Although I tend to read extensively, I am not a psychologist and the “theories” contained herein are intended to provoke thought, discussion and awareness. I hope that you enjoy them in the manner intended.
Until next time, please stay safe and well.