Healthy Conflict: Oxymoron Or Essential Skill?

healthy conflict

I take great pride in being someone who finds the “win-win” in most conversations, whether that is at work or with my family.  But don’t get me wrong, it isn’t easy and I don’t like conflict. As a manager and leader of work and home teams (I’m the Mom of the West Coast Harris team),  I need to have difficult conversations and work through a lot of conflict.  I’ve discovered a good NAPp (I’ll explain) can make it much easier. 

How do you handle conflict?

Like me, do you distance yourself emotionally from people who you find frustrating? Conflict at home and at work is common, and in these uncommon times of working from home, it is more important than ever to build your ability to handle conflict in a healthy way.

REALITY CHECK: Most conflict occurs over minutia.

Yup, it’s true. The things that drive us crazy about others are typically the little things. The petty grievances and day-to-day minutia of our lives.

My partner takes his dirty clothes off at night as he gets into bed, and leaves them on the floor. The laundry basket is poised less than a foot away, but he leaves his clothes On The Floor. Every Day. They stay there, and the pile grows until laundry day. Some might say that I’m overreacting, but I have already made a pact with a few close friends that if they ever hear that I have done him harm, they will come to my defense. And they absolutely understand. On the other hand, I have overheard my partner complaining to a friend that he has to help me locate my cell phone up to 10 times a day, In The House.

Avoiding conflict is common at work, too. I have two colleagues that had a falling out more than 5 years ago, and to this day, they don’t trust each other fully.  As a result, collaboration and communication between their teams (yes, they’re staff!)  has been negatively impacted for years.

In the popular book “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni, fear of conflict is second only to absence of trust in terms of how damaging it is to a team. 

So what can we do?

#1: Accept that conflict is a natural outcome of people bringing different ideas to the table. If you feel comfortable to share ideas with someone else, that means that you have built some level of trust. If you are holding back your ideas because of fear of conflict, then you may want to spend some time thinking about your own history with trust (feeling safe from potential emotional or physical harm). As someone with past experiences where sharing my ideas often led to painful outcomes, I can vouch for the fact that you may need to dig in a bit deeper on your own or with a coach to let go of any baggage from your past. Your goal is to be able to stay calm and grounded during the discussion.

Next time you are in a conflict situation, try NAPping for a healthier and more successful outcome! 

NAPping is a way to remember Notice, Ask, and be Passionately pragmatic.  Sounds strange, but it works very well!

First, Notice what is happening in your body. We teach emotional regulation to kids, but it isn’t just kids that can benefit. In our house, we use the Green (calm), Yellow (stressed) and Red (I’m going to say something I may regret) stoplight approach in our house. You may be surprised how fast you can go from Green to Red without noticing Yellow, but with a little practice you start to recognize as you move into Yellow. For those of you who meditate or like to take deep breaths — the time to do that is just as you move into the Yellow zone. If you are already in the Red zone, you may need to step away to get yourself into a calmer state.

I urge you to know your Red zone, and never feel ashamed or embarrassed to tell someone that you need a few minutes before you can respond. In the Red zone, your prehistoric lizard brain (called the “amygdala”) has taken over, and you aren’t going to be capable of rational thought until you can re-activate your frontal lobe and your executive functioning tools! The art of maintaining your ability to stay detached amidst chaos and turmoil is a skill that you can practice and build over time. Consider it an investment in becoming a happier person.

Ask a question. Careful though, this isn’t time to start a debate. Your goal is not to convince the other person of the validity of your ideas. Instead, take a few minutes to ask them questions to make sure you fully understand what they are trying to say. I’ve observed that most conflict occurs when we use words in a context that seems obvious to us, but isn’t interpreted the same way by another person.  If you’ve ever heard the term “Active Listening”, this is it in action. Here’s a few questions to try:

  • When you say we should do “x” (repeat their words), what do you think that would look like?
  • I understand you are saying “x”, but I want to make sure we are thinking about this from the same place. What do you see as the end goal here? (this helps to ensure you both have the same picture of success).
  • What obstacles or assumptions are you making that are driving your recommendation to do “x”?
  • What else do you see as key to doing this well?

The coolest part of asking questions is that you can start to see how the other person is determining what success looks like for them. I’m a huge believer that everyone wants to do their best and be seen as a valued and contributing part of the team — whether that’s family or work. When you assume positive intent, you immediately create trust and that reduces the need for either person to become defensive or withdrawn.

Now that you are grounded and you’ve used active listening to be curious about the other person’s perspective, you are ready to share your own.

Passionately pragmatic. What does passionately pragmatic mean? It means that while you may have very good ideas and be passionate about them, you’ll be a lot more successful in getting others to pay attention if you can articulate your ideas in a way that:

  • Ties your approach back to the goal or picture of success
  • Keeps you passionate about achieving the picture of success, but open to different tactics on how to get there
  • Identifies the evidence or data that supports why you chose this approach as what you are recommending.

Here’s an example of how that might look in my house:

“Hey honey, can we talk about what’s important to each of us about having a clean and tidy bedroom?” Audible groan occurs.

notice that the groan has triggered immediate rage, so I suggest that we meet in 5–10 minutes as I have to finish up something else. I take a few minutes to breathe and ground myself. As a result, when we meet, I’m able to ask a question instead of immediately bringing forward my frustrations.

” I realize that we have different perspectives on what’s important to each of us. I was wondering, when you think of coming into our bedroom at the end of the day, what things are important to you?” (notice I used open-ended questions and am focusing on the broader picture of success…no clothes yet!)

After a few more questions and active listening, I’m able to repeat back to him what he’s shared about what’s important to him. Now I can be passionately pragmatic and say, “Hey you know what? I really like what you said about wanting our bedroom to feel more romantic and relaxed. I know I feel a lot more romantic and relaxed when the room is tidy. Would you be willing to spend a few extra minutes every night to make sure your clothes are in the laundry basket so that I am less stressed and more likely to want to put on sexier PJs?” (notice how I even provided a reward system that benefits both of us!).

This approach works in business too, although I recommend that you avoid discussions of your colleague’s or employee’s stinky socks. Remember, it’s the minutia that makes us crazy and creates conflict, but with a quick NAPp and the willingness to create a shared picture of success, you can shift to a healthier way to handle that conflict now to avoid piling up resentments over time.

And that is how we can all achieve breakthrough results at home and in business!

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