Getting Comfortable with Productive Conflict

A woman and a man have a tense discussion
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Conflict is bad. Or is it? Many of us were raised to believe that conflict is damaging to relationships, damaging to team dynamics, and disrespectful. The truth is not all conflict is created equally.

In fact, it’s an important element for growth and engagement. Imagine your favorite movie or TV show if there was no opponent, no villain for the hero. What would the story be like? What if in The Matrix, the humans asked for freedom and the machines immediately gave up and said “ok”? The movie would have been over in five minutes.

Imagine if the story “The Little Red Riding Hood” didn’t have a wolf. It would just be a step-by-step recounting of a young girl going to visit her grandmother. Would that be as exciting or interesting? What would be the lesson?

Just like stories, our workplaces and our personal lives suffer in the absence and/or avoidance of conflict. By avoiding difficult conversations, we’re becoming less creative and less productive as we waste hours avoiding people and situations that are draining us.

But the solution isn’t endlessly engaging in conflict, mainly because conflict is natural – there will always be tensions that naturally exist between people who have different needs, priorities, and values. The answer is having productive conflict, grounded in debating ideas and collaboratively finding ways to solve problems together.

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Is Productive Conflict a Real Thing?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes. As described above, productive conflict allows for ideas to be debated and for more creative and innovative solutions to be designed. It creates better relationships, reduces stress, improves productivity, builds trust, and encourages more collaboration.

It comes down to this: when people aren’t afraid to share their opinions, it’s possible to get to the other side and start thinking about solutions rather than focusing only on feeling unheard and not respected.

What Are the Barriers to Being Comfortable and Confident in Difficult Conversations?

There are five main barriers to being comfortable in productive conflict. You probably experience at least one of these, but many people experience almost all of them:

  1. We are invested in both the outcome AND the relationship and want to preserve both.
  2. We aren’t comfortable with emotions, so we try to deny or avoid them.
  3. We resort to the fight/flight/freeze response – a natural biological response.
  4. We have limiting beliefs about conflict, so we avoid it or avoid being assertive.
  5. We don’t know how to facilitate the conversation, so we’re not confident we can manage it respectfully.

 

In the rest of this post, we’ll explore three main strategies to overcome these barriers.

Strategy 1: Reframe Your Entire Belief System about Conflict

Our mindsets are like tracks in the snow, something that’s been ingrained in us for years from a young age. Once you get into that pattern, it’s not easy to get out of it because they’ve become automatic for us. Mindsets shape the way we view the world and how we interpret interactions around us.

So, how can you reframe mindsets? It’s straightforward but not easy.

You first identify a mindset that would be more successful, choose one behavior that reinforces that mindset, and then intentionally practice it daily.

Here are some ideas:

Instead of this: Try this:
“You’re the problem.” The other person isn’t the problem here, the problem is the problem.
“I just need the right logic to win the argument.” Emotions are hard and are the key to understanding the other person.
“I’m right and they’re wrong, they just need to see things the way I see it.” Everyone has their own stories and how they perceive the world is different than mine.
“I hate hearing ‘no.’” No is an opportunity to learn more.
“I don’t want to say something that upsets them.” OR “Giving hard feedback is too harsh for the other person.” Having hard conversations about difficult topics is a way to show you care about someone else.

Strategy 2: Get Comfortable with Emotions

We’re all emotional people; it’s just how our brain works. The key isn’t in avoiding emotions but in learning what triggers certain emotions in us and having a game plan for how we’re going to respond to them. Take it to the next level by learning how to identify what emotion is driving someone else’s behaviors.

Start by figuring out what makes you angry, sad, or upset in conflict. Is it a behavior, something that is said, or a tone?

From there, start identifying and practicing strategies that help you calm down in those heightened situations. Things like mindfulness, deep breaths, and grounding. There’s no limit to what can be used, but start doing that self-reflection to understand yourself so you can keep yourself even-keeled in conflict.

Strategy 3: Prepare Effectively

Chances are, when you go on an extended trip, you don’t just go to the airport. You’ve spent time researching, buying tickets, planning stays/activities, packing your luggage, and getting everything else ready. Conflict conversations should be the same way.

You need to spend adequate time preparing for the conversation. The average college athlete spends close to 30 hours a week training and practicing for a 3-hour game. Professional orchestra musicians, on average, spend 40-50 hours a week practicing for 6 hours’ worth of performances a week. Now, you may not have to spend that much time preparing (or maybe you do!), but the takeaway is that the more you prepare, the more prepared you’ll feel.

[Download a preparation checklist for your next conflict conversation here]

If you’re able to, you can download a preparation checklist at the link above. Here are the main things you’ll need to be aware of:

  1. Clearly identify your goals and how flexible you’re willing to be.
  2. Get an understanding of the other person: Their needs, communication style, motivation.
  3. Prepare the logistics of the conversation.
  4. What will your coping skills be?
  5. What objections/concerns may be raised?
  6. How can you practice? Is there someone you trust to practice with and give you feedback?

 

At the end of the day, embracing productive conflict is not just about navigating disagreements; it can transform the way you approach everything you do, enhance collaboration, foster innovation, and build stronger relationships. As you begin this journey of reframing conflict, let’s remember that the path to harmony and mutual growth often begins with the courage to engage openly and constructively in the very conversations we might have once avoided.

We recommend effective communication training for employees.

Author
Chris Wong
Chris Wong

Chris Wong is a certified executive coach, licensed therapist, and seasoned leadership development professional with a proven track record in the nonprofit sector. He specializes in guiding leaders through strategic prioritization, confident navigation of difficult conversations, and fostering high-performing cultures. As a facilitator and public speaker, Chris has trained hundreds of leaders and spearheaded successful organizational projects. His extensive experience spans nonprofits, health insurance, and government systems.  

Currently, he partners with human service nonprofit executives to execute strategic plans, addressing challenges such as conflict resolution, culture enhancement, productivity improvement, and fostering inclusive work environments. Chris’s expertise encompasses leadership development, strategic planning, change management, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Connect with Chris on LinkedIn and at myleadershippotential.com.

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