Dec 16, 2021

Conflict as a Tool for Healthy Team Growth

Sticky note that reads "Let's talk."

It’s 3 a.m. You’re wide awake. You’re having a “conversation” in your mind with a colleague, a boss, a client. Again. The same one. Seemingly on repeat for the past few days, weeks, or months even.

Barring some intractable factors, it appears it’s time to transition that hard conversation from inner monologue to outer dialogue.

The thought of it is potentially making your heart race, your palms sweaty, your mouth dry, and even causing you to be a little nauseated.

When asked, most will say that they don’t like conflict. And that’s fair. I, myself, do prefer my conflict in works of fiction.

But all that internal turmoil, the time spent spinning, the miscommunications due to avoidance is not only unhealthy, it also frequently builds up and makes the situation worse.

Yes, conflict can be intimidating. And with a mutually agreed-upon approach, it is possible to elevate it to a healthy and productive conversation. As the Corgibytes Choose Candor value states:

Healthy conflict in a psychologically-safe environment is a critical component of a high-functioning team. We hold each other accountable and strengthen our work by challenging ideas respectfully and directly. Speak up and share your point of view, even when it’s hard.

Although it is easier said than done, there are a few concepts that we can apply to both help prepare ourselves as individuals and create that safer collaborative space.

Root the exchange in respect

Depending on the parties involved, it may be necessary to explicitly agree that the tone, wording, and sentiment will remain respectful. There is no room for passive-aggressive statements here. It’s essential to hold ourselves accountable to providing factual points to augment the discussion and help provide an additional point of view. And, also, to remember that there is a difference between sharing information and lashing out.

Accept that it’s going to get uncomfortable

One of the most difficult aspects of accepting the discomfort is that it might trigger memories or sensations of past unhealthy conflicts. Aside from setting up ground rules such as the above, aiming for high levels of self-awareness and practicing self-talk can illuminate these potential filters and help recognize, on a deeper level, that this situation is different. With practice and experiencing an increase in healthy conflict interactions, it does become easier to manage the discomfort. Even if it never fully goes away.

Keep in mind that it’s not about “winning”

Assuming good intentions from the parties involved, we should all be on the same side. As in we all want what is best for the organization, the project, etc. Feeling passionately about certain topics usually indicates a deeper level of caring. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be passionate. And we may have valid reasons to believe that if certain things happen/don’t happen, it could be catastrophic. In those instances, try as much as possible to present objective data or proof as opposed to more subjective arguments.

And in case of impasse, explore the possibility of a “third option” outside of the ones being considered. Often, collaborating away from two opposing points of view to extract an entirely different solution yields a new, even better, way out.

Take a moment to breathe and reflect

Sometimes, we just need to hit that virtual pause button. It’s perfectly acceptable to request time before agreeing to a solution to the issue. I’ve frequently asked for it myself to create emotional distance from the discussion. I want to ensure that my thoughts are rooted in facts rather than influenced by how I’m feeling at the moment. Be upfront about needing to let the points of view sink in.

Choose which topics to address

Sometimes, when we’ve been avoiding conflict for so long, there is much to be discussed. Refrain from an “emotional dumping” in an attempt to solve all the things all at once. Not everything needs to be said and discussed “right now”. Select the most pressing issues that impact the business, team, morale the most and address these first.

And now… lean in

In my experience, the more I choose to lean into the discomfort and see these difficult conversations through, the more I become used to them. And the more I see the positive results of these, the more I have them.

Listen with an open mind. Leave lots of room for each other to talk. Self-regulate the emotions. And go for it.

Yes, there will be times when elements won’t be resolved successfully. And there will be times when acceptance will be necessary.

Despite that, I’ve found that for the most part, these hard conversations do generate some form of progress. Even though I don’t particularly enjoy having them, it does beat the alternative of having these on repeat, in my mind, at 3 a.m.

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