People are often surprised when I suggest that there are benefits to conflict. Instead of embracing conflict we often work hard to avoid it. Yet, I’m suggesting not only that you stop avoiding conflict in your relationships, but that you embrace it, even invite it. When many people think of conflict, they think about poorly managed conflict where tempers flare, people say things they regret and feelings are hurt. Yet, few people enjoy engaging with someone who never pushes back; who always gives in without even a slight disagreement. Think about a time when you encountered someone who said “yes” no matter what you suggested; who wouldn’t make a suggestion for fear of rejection. This non-engagement is frustrating. Most of us want to engage with others who bring their perspective to the table. When there are different ideas, different perspectives, there is conflict between those ideas and perspectives. So, the goal isn’t to avoid conflict. The goal is to have well-managed conflict.
A well-managed conflict involves dialogue during which everyone respectfully says how they see things–their truth; expresses their wants and desires, their disappointments and frustrations, and, where each person listens for the purpose of really understanding how the other sees things. The dialogue continues until a place of mutual understanding is achieved. Sometimes all that is needed is reaching this place of Mutual Understanding because some conflicts are simply misunderstandings. And sometimes, deeply understanding the needs, wants, desires and motivations of another makes the conflict unimportant There is a magic to Mutual Understanding because there is a deep human need to feel understood.
When Mutual Understanding isn’t enough by itself, it is the solid ground from where it is possible to engage in effective problem solving. The solid ground of Mutual Understanding is the place where creative solutions and mutually acceptable resolution are found.
While both conflict avoidance and long-term poorly managed conflict can lead to discontent and relationship breakdown, well-managed conflict promotes inner peace and relationships that thrive. Well-managed conflict:
- Leads to increased awareness;
- Motivates personal growth and development;
- Leads to better decisions; and
- Increases relationship satisfaction.
Increased awareness comes from the process of working toward Mutual Understanding. To express a position fully and respectfully, one must first carefully assess what is important to them and why. What underlies the position being taken? By exploring this, one gains deeper self-awareness. In being willing to listen to another person with the intention of really understanding their perspective, one gains a deeper awareness of the other person and what is important to them. This awareness of yourself and the other is part of what makes relationships rich and rewarding. The time spent in this kind of dialogue is well worth it for the payback of deeper, richer relationships.
Personal growth and development come from the increased awareness of yourself and others. As your self-awareness grows, you may alter positions you once held and take on new perspectives. As you explore the needs and interests, wants and desires, of another person, you learn from their perspective and your world view expands. As you move to understand your perspective and that of another, you develop the skill of being able to hold in your awareness, both your reality and that of another. The ability to truly understand the reality of another person, whether you agree with them or not, AND to hold onto your reality at the same time, is a powerful skill. From this place, wisdom blossoms and creativity flourishes.
Better decisions come from the place of creativity opened up by exploring Mutual Understanding. Call to mind a time when you tried to make a decision without discussing it with someone. Can you see how not having someone to play devil’s advocate for you made it harder to think of multiple alternatives? Without having thought about alternatives, it is hard to create optimal decisions. When you engage in a well-managed conflict about a decision that you are making with another person, you have something even better than someone playing devils advocate. You have someone who really cares about the outcome and who is willing to work with you to explore options and be creative. From this place of investment and creativity, options you would never have thought of on your own are generated. From these options the best possible solution can be selected.
Increased relationship satisfaction comes from full, open dialogue about what really matters and about existing, as well as potential, problems. When issues are avoided, resentment can breed. In talking about what matters, even when it is difficult, deeper connection grows. You find areas where you thought you disagreed but you actually agree and areas where you can reach mutually satisfactory agreements where there once was disagreement. You may also discover subjects about which you will never agree because you hold different values. Knowing what these subjects are, is important. Pretending to agree when there isn’t true agreement leads to disconnection and resentment, which leads to dysfunction and unfulfilling, relationships. Knowing where agreement is NOT possible, coupled with respect for the other person’s different perspective will enhance your relationship. You won’t waste time trying to solve unsolvable problems. Rather, you will look for workable compromises that you can both live with. Many people even develop a shared sense of humor about their perpetual problems. In some situations, if you really think about it, you may realize that it is actually some of these differences that first interested you in this other person.
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Whether you are dealing with friendship, family, romantic, work or team relationships, you will discover many benefits from engaging in well-managed conflict, and notice undesirable consequences, when conflict is avoided. In relationships with significant others and family members, the tendency to avoid conflict is even greater than at work and in teams. The risk of not reaching an agreement if you talk about differing wants and needs, can feel overwhelming. Yet, if you avoid conflict, you risk the regret that comes from knowing that so much more was possible. You risk missing out on truly connected, fulfilling, loving relationship. At work, it is diverse teams that produce the best results. Yet if the diversity is downplayed to avoid conflict, the potential of diversity can be lost. If you are a team leader there will be times your team can’t reach consensus and you may need to make decisions that don’t please everyone. However, if you have had a well-managed conflict conversation, you are much more likely to get buy-in, even from those who don’t agree with the solution you select. People who have had a chance to be heard and understood are less hostile toward solutions that are imposed after consensus hasn’t been reached. Further, an atmosphere of cooperation is fostered by constructively handing conflict rather than avoiding it.
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As you begin to embrace conflict and invite others to join you in conflict conversations you can prepare yourself and the situation. Prepare yourself by setting your intention to be open to other perspectives, to be willing to hold multiple realities, and to find creative solutions. Prepare the situation by inviting the full participation of others; offering Authentic, Respectful Communication; and request it from others. Naturally, no matter how good your intentions, things may go awry and you may not be as respectful and authentic as you want. Don’t worry. Remember that you aren’t going for perfection. “Well-managed” really means well-enough-managed. If you express your intention to have an authentic, respectful dialogue where all perspectives are welcome, others will forgive you if it doesn’t go perfectly. When the conversation begins to get off track, try the following:
- Notice that things are getting off track;
- Take responsibility for your part in the mess;
- Reset and reassert your intention to gain Mutual Understanding through Authentic, Respectful Communication
- Try again.
With practice, your conflict communication will improve, many of your relationships will deepen, and you will find more personal fulfillment and inner peace, knowing that you have done everything you could to foster clear, compassionate communication and benefit from conflict.