When we hear the word “conflict”, we often think of “fight”, i.e. something bad and unproductive. So we find the idea of creating positive change from conflicts to be a totally foolish or even a preposterous one. But is it?
The word conflict maybe often used as a synonym of war in breaking news, but it´s also equally often used to describe disagreements or challenging differences of opinion that might disrupt harmony and destabilize.
But wait: don´t all businesses desperately need to bring disruptive alternative perspectives to the table, in order to stimulate innovation and growth? So how can we shift paradigm and actually use conflicts to bring about positive change?
The often forgotten positive side of conflicts
How many times have we stumbled into stories that show us the value of facing or even provoking conflicts, for the very purpose of using the confrontation to gain new insights, improve relationships and move ahead? How many examples have we seen of confrontations that result in increased knowledge, positive actions and, often, stronger feelings of belonging and togetherness? Examples vary from the experienced marriage counselor – who is able to accurately predict if a couple will stay happily together by measuring their ability to face conflicts and speed of recovery – to the management consultant – who resurrects a declining business by introducing the spark of diversity and conflict into an otherwise stagnating board dialogue – to the historic enemies – who become best friends after they take the chance to discuss the elephant in the room.
Even when we fail to remember clear examples, our brain intuitively captures the learning opportunities offered by disagreements and the great rewards of facing and resolving the confrontation.
The overemphasized negative side of conflicts
So why is the area of conflict surrounded by such enormous anxiety and fear? Why do we avoid conflicts as often as we can and why do we seek to learn conflict management techniques like if we were learning military tactics for war?
In business situations, we can often observe a rather common pattern; as soon as conflicts are mentioned, most of us get into the proverbial “box” (a metaphor used to describe a state of mind when we switch focus from outside to inside, engage in a close dialogue with ourselves, and thus disconnect from reality).
This specific box is an “inadequacy” box: we see ourselves as called to a task of paramount difficulty and for which we are ill prepared. The more senior and higher in the hierarchy we are, the more insecure we usually feel. Why?
The most common reasons for this “feeling inadequate” are to be found in some hard-to-die leadership stereotypes, which create false expectations, especially around our need to control and the related fear of losing control.
The art of surrending control of outcome while keeping purpose and drive
We know it: control restricts potential, limits initiative and inhibits talents. Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence), Daniel Pink (Drive!) and Jim Collins (the L-5 leaders) among others, have amply proven that today´s businesses need that each of us learn to lead ourselves and to co-lead for a common purpose. This in turn requires that we develop more self-confidence (much harder than to exert power) and that we open the dialogue (which implies relinquishing control for the outcome).
This is a leadership style that is very hard to master and that gets particularly challenged in situations of conflicts. When we invite different opinions (or even worse, when we are unexpectedly faced with different opinions, especially if voiced with clumsy communication, unsophisticated style and maybe even aggression) we sometimes wish that we could simply make use of the old and easy power strategies and get rid of the disagreement.
We despair: how to work through a disagreement differently? how to remind everybody of the common purpose, calm the spirits, have a civilized discussion and learn in the process? how to express feelings with honesty and confidence without using unproductive aggression?
The three surprisingly simple rules of successful conflict resolution, which help us lead positive change
Although mastering the art of dealing with conflicts requires extensive training and practice, there are three surprisingly simple rules that do apply to the majority of conflicts and help us start on the right foot.
As we learn to use these rules, we will already make significant change in our ability to create a positive outcome from most disagreements.
Rule Number 1: It is not about ME it is about WE
Wen we are faced with a difference of opinions, the least productive approach is to focus on the “what”, fighting one opinion against another, with loads of supporting reasons; this is a win-lose approach. A much more productive alternative is to align on a common intention (we all win) and deal with the different ideas not as mine and yours but as ours.
Rule Number 2: It is not about BUT, it is about AND.
In almost 80% of instances we can use the word AND in stead of the word BUT without losing an inch of meaning, yet adding an enormous contribution to encouraging the dialogue. Try it! It works magic!
Rule Number 3. It is not I MUST, it is I WANT.
Most of us do many things out of habit, without even thinking about it. This works just fine only within a very restricted circle of familiar people who know us. As soon as we are in contact with diversity, we cannot safely assume that everybody will perceive things the same way and we´ll end up in conflicts. If our reaction to a critical comment is “but of course I/you/we must” or “you know that I /you/ we should not”, then think again.
Do you really want or choose to do so? or are you blindly follow habits and conventions that by definitions will not be equally fair and sensible for everybody.
We have trained hundreds of leaders on these rules and we hear amazing success stories on how they have helped create innovative collaborations and good team feelings in many occasions. For more specific training programs, see below and take contacts!
Laura Lozza © 2013