Most of us have some resistance to conflict. Instead of addressing issues directly, we try to be ‘nice’ or avoid issues altogether. We can end up spending an inordinate amount of time talking to ourselves and others without confronting often necessary conflict. We complain, feel frustrated and ruminate on something that already happened. Or, we anticipate something that might happen. These conversations usually sound something like this:
“My colleague interrupted me again. We’re supposed to be leading this effort together and this is his way of showing he’s the boss. He just makes me look bad in front of the team. I’ve been replaying it in my mind over and over again.” Or…
“Someone has to tell my direct report that his bad attitude is affecting the team, but I’m dreading it. I’ve been thinking about it all day and haven’t been able to get anything done.” Or…
“I know what they’re going to say. We can’t have more resources due to budget constraints. I’ll probably just give up on this.”
These efforts to be ‘nice’ or avoidconflict have significant costs. Your relationships are neither authentic nor constructive. Your health and self-esteem may suffer. You may even signal you’re a victim. Your organisation loses out as you make compromises with the loudest person in the room. You lose diversity of thinking that’s critical for innovation and stop producing the best solutions.
Here’s 5 tips I’ve offered clients when they find themselves avoiding conflict:
1 Being ‘nice’ is an outdated strategy-recognise this
Youve probably got burned by conflict, felt shamed or were criticised at some earlier stage of your life. When that happens, we often decide to be accommodating rather than ever feeling humiliated or hurt again. We choose safety, peace and harmony over speaking up.
When I ask clients why they don’t want to have a difficult conversation, it usually comes down to fear of experiencing those emotions again. Many have an ‘a-ha!’ moment when they realise they’re no longer that younger version of themselves. They’re now a seasoned, experienced person with new skills and know-how. As one client recently expressed: “I’m still behaving as if I’m the second-year associate who got shouted down by the senior partner for pushing back. But now I’m the general counsel of this organisation!”
2 Focus on organisational needs
When you avoid conflict, you’re actually putting the focus squarely on yourself. In all three scenarios above the clients felt backed into a corner, concerned about how another’s might perceive them. But it’s actually not about you.
I ask clients ‘What would the CEO, customers and shareholders of your organisation say about this situation and what does the organisation need?’ Suddenly, they’re much more objective and clear:
‘The organisation needs me and my peers to be a united front.”
“This direct report has got a lot of potential and if I could coach him to use a more positive style, he could make a great contribution.”
“We need to discuss the vision of what we’re trying to achieve and the resources it will take to make that possible.”
Take the focus off you and your fear – concentrate of what your organisation needs instead.
3 Critique the persons behaviours, not the person
Use observations, not labels. For instance, in the case of the direct report, he’s likely to be defensive if you say “I need to talk to you about how negatively you are in staff meetings”. Instead, talk about what you’ve observed: “I noticed in yesterday’s meeting that when the COO got to the topic of the change initiatives, your body language changed and you reacted quite strongly. I’d like to discuss how you could share your concerns in the most productive way possible.”
Include a request for the behaviour that would support the shared organisational goal. In the case of the interrupting colleague, you might say “In the last team meeting I noticed that we were interacting with each other in a way that may be throwing the team off. To keep the team on track, it’s important that we appear as a united front. Can we determine what role we’ll play in the meetings in advance or agree on some non-verbal signals when it’s time to pass the baton?”
4 Keep a calm demeanour
People who shy away from conflict often assume it has to look aggressive, overbearing or disrespectful. It does not. You can and should be yourself and remain approachable, non-judgmental and calm in tense situations by being clear. Keep focused on the organisational needs rather than your own.
5 Start with baby steps
Like any muscle you build, it takes practice and repetition before you gain competency. Start with easier situations first and address the conflict retrospectively (it can be hard to do it in the moment at first). Institute a ‘statute of limitations’ whereby you cannot ruminate, fume or carry on unproductively beyond 48 hours. During that 48 hours, focus on being more conscious and self-aware. Why do you feel such anxiety and why does it feel so personal? What does the organisation really need from you in this situation? What request are you not making? Then, take action.
Gradually, each of these new experiences will help you reframe conflict. Reframe conflict into a necassary step to move the organisation forward.