On the one hand, whether we like it or not, avoid it or not, conflict is here to stay. On the other, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing – we are all entitled after all to our opinions and conflict may be the only way to build on our respective views and achieve a solution that is better than all our views. So it makes sense to find constructive ways to deal with our conflict so that we might achieve the most constructive outcomes.

In fact, what if leaders were able to work at the very point of difference between people and explore the positive qualities of relationships that can be built on healthy tension and friction? An example of this might be real-time permission. How might this happen? It would be necessary for a leader to make it clear to her team that more conflict is, in fact, a desirable goal and will be expected from them. After this kind of announcement, there will be a key moment when team members take their first risks in engaging one another in active debate. This will always be an uncomfortable moment. When this happens, a leader can minimise the discomfort and maximise the likelihood that conflict will continue by interrupting the participants and reminding them that what they are doing is good. For example, she might say: “Before you continue, and I definitely want you to continue, I just want to say this is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about when I said we need to start engaging in more conflict. And even though it can be frustrating for you, George, to rethink the work you’ve been doing, it’s Sipho’s job, and all of ours, to question you if we think it can make the final outcome better.” The impact of these remarks would be that the ‘combatants’ would let go of a considerable amount of the unnecessary interpersonal tension they had been feeling.

Many people fear conflict because they feel they can’t trust their emotions. Well, what if we made a point of only getting mad on purpose? It was Aristotle who said, “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, this is not easy.” Anger is an emotion that exists for a reason – anger is not an emotion to stifle or ignore. If we manage it properly and use it purposefully, we can get results that actually enhance our relationships. Expressing anger in appropriate ways communicates your strong feelings and reminds people of the gravity of the situation. Expressing anger too much or at the wrong time desensitises people to what you are feeling, making it hard for others to take you seriously.
Of course, it takes time to master because hopefully, we don’t have daily opportunities to practice. So we need to seriously prepare behind-the-scenes for this strategy, starting with becoming aware of our anger. We need to use our self-awareness skills to think about and define our varying degrees of anger – from what annoys us a little to what sends us off the deep end. Write these down and choose words that are specific and then write examples that explain when you feel this way. Determine to show your anger based on the criterion that if it’s shared it will actually improve the relationship. Use your social awareness to think about the other people involved and their responses. How are they likely to respond to what you have to say and to your anger? What would an objective observer say about what you have to say and how you say it? If your relationship was a person, what would it have to say?

At the end of the day, conflict can be, and we should seek to make it, a positive and constructive thing in our relationships. But if you forget everything else, don’t forget those two hardy old ground rules: be respectful, and play the ball not the person.

Kind regards,
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