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Embrace the Conflict

Embrace the Conflict

In the 1987 film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko raised more than a few eyebrows with his proud proclamation, “Greed is good!” Perhaps I’ll raise a few of my own by stating with equal boldness, “Conflict is good!”

Many people tend to avoid conflict, mostly because they see it as a bad thing. People tend to assume it invariably makes things worse. It doesn’t really help. It only leads to increased tension, frayed emotions and battered relationships. Better to let sleeping dogs lie — or so they say. I want to buck conventional wisdom and suggest conflict is inevitable, and when handled rightly, it actually leads to better relationships, more effective solutions and more efficient business practices — not to mention better morale.

Wally Bley, a longtime Columbia attorney, recently told me it amazed him that people would come into his office mad as hell at each other — seeking a legal resolution — when they really hadn’t even tried that hard to work it out on their own.

“It would seem to me that people might want to talk things through themselves before starting World War III.” It’s certainly much less messy and a lot less expensive!


Although at first blush people’s desires seem to be at polar opposites, given an opportunity to reasonably and honestly talk about their needs, most of the time common ground can be reached. People need to keep in mind that it doesn’t matter so much where you start out, what matters is where you end up.

— Wally Bley, attorney at law


Adjusting our mindset

It would seem that the best shot at achieving that preferred end is when someone willingly and courageously embraces the necessary conflict. It makes absolute sense. So why don’t people do it?

I think it boils down to two things: our mindset about conflict (we tend to think that conflict is a bad thing and should be avoided as much as possible) and our tendency to discount the significance of our differences, especially early on (we don’t want make a mountain out of a mole hill). As a result, many issues go unaddressed. Frustrations fester. Gossip and backbiting replace frank conversation.

My wife and I lead the premarital ministry at our church, and one of the things we tell young couples is that they ought not be surprised by conflict. Conflict is inevitable. Think about it: We are all amazingly unique individuals with our own unique perspectives and values. We were raised in different environments and have a host of different learning experiences. When these two lives come together to try and walk the same path, we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that we’re looking at different roadmaps. Getting on the same page means embracing the conflict associated with finding a common path. This is not only true in marriage, but it’s also relevant in business partnerships, personal friendships and political processes.

The interesting thing about conflict — and doing it well — is that people invariably find themselves in a much better place on the other side of it. They often experience significant personal growth, a broader psychological perspective and a deeper sense of commitment to the other person/people involved.

The key, of course, is captured in doing “it” well. What does that mean?


Engaging it early

In addition to adjusting our mindset, which allows us to see conflict as our friend, the single most important thing we can do, to do it well, is to engage it early. Most of us want to wait until something is big enough to merit the energy that conflict requires.

However, once something is perceived as “big enough,” there is already a good measure of emotion involved. Our feelings have probably been hurt a time or two, and maybe even some resentment has set in. As a result, once we do engage the conflict, our emotions have escalated. This can cause our perspective to be skewed. It’s harder to listen with an open mind. Our defenses are up. Trust has also probably eroded a bit, which isn’t exactly the best backdrop for healthy conflict.

Therefore, it would serve us well to simply get into the practice of asking clarifying questions with the very first tweak. When something feels off, ask the question, “Is something up?” If a conversation has extra energy, call a time out. When nonverbal signals suggest something is amiss, don’t pretend it’s not a big deal. Lean in. Explore. Engage.

Much is said these days about the litigious environment in business. People complain about how much money is wasted protecting against frivolous lawsuits. As a result, people are talking about new laws and limitations on liability. Perhaps the real solution is much more personal. Maybe it starts with us embracing the idea that conflict is actually good in the home, in the office and in the arena of public conversation.




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