Productive Conflict: Is There Such A Thing?
What comes to mind when you think of the word “conflict”? Perhaps you said arguing, unpleasantness, fear, damaged relationships, anxiety or anger. Those are the words I often hear participants say when I facilitate an Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict session.
However, there is another perspective that gets too little focus. That perspective is the benefits of conflict. Conflict is inevitable, it is natural and it is necessary. When handled productively, conflict can lead to new and better ways of doing things.
One of my early mentors was fond of saying, “Full potential is not achieved in a serene environment.” He taught me that the key to healthy conflict is to focus on achieving a win/win solution while having a sincere desire to maintain the relationship.
In his best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni proposes that lack of conflict is one of the basic dysfunctions of a team. He contends teams need to have lively dialogue and debate around issues and ideas if they are going to achieve results.
That is all great in theory. But the question is how? How amid a continuous, emotionally charged situation, do you focus on developing a win/win outcome and maintaining the relationship? How do you debate ideas and issues rather than making a personal attack? How do you keep from feeling personally attacked yourself?
The answer lies in Cognitive Behavioral Theory. An underlying presupposition of Cognitive Behavioral Theory is that our automatic thoughts – not the situation itself – is what leads to unhealthy, unproductive conflict. Therefore, by changing our thoughts we can change both our response to and the outcome of the situation.
Here is an example. Let’s say you have an idea for a product modification that will reduce manufacturing time and costs. You tell your idea to Sally who immediately reacts by saying,
“That will never work.”
Your automatic thought is,
“She never thinks I have any good ideas.”
Your reaction is to say,
“You are always so resistant to new ideas”, and walk away.
The product innovation does not get implemented, there is no costs savings, and your relationship with Sally needs repair.
What if instead the situation plays out a little differently: You tell Sally your product modification idea and she again reacts by saying that it will never work. You have the same automatic thought: “She never thinks I have any good ideas.” But this time instead of reacting, you pause and reframe your automatic thought. You might tell yourself something like,
“That is just Sally. She almost always resists new ideas. But she usually comes around. Often she even has some good thoughts for enhancing the concept.”
Now, instead getting frustrated and leaving the room, you ask Sally how she thinks the idea might work.
The result: Sally has an opportunity to express her concerns and then offers suggestions. You implement the collective idea. Production time and costs are reduced. You have achieved a win/win solution and maintained your relationship with Sally.
While easier said than done, it is worth the effort.
Being able to identify and reframe automatic thoughts in a way that leads to win/win outcomes requires:
- emotional self-control,
- a keen understanding of the other person, and
- the ability to manage interpersonal relationships.
Or in other words it requires emotional intelligence.
Would you like to experience productive conflict for yourself?
Next time you find yourself in a potentially conflictual situation, before you react, hit the pause button and ask yourself these three questions:
- Is my thought true or valid?
- Am I overreacting?
- How else could I look at the situation?