Conflict is like electricity. It has a lot of potential energy. We use electricity to power our appliances and cell phones. Electricity is very dangerous as well. Anyone who’s been shocked by a bad power cord can testify to that! If you’re a bit of a thrill-seeker but don’t want to get hurt, try touching your tongue to both poles of a fresh nine-volt battery.
The energy of conflict is generated by the gap between what we want and what we are experiencing. I want to be at work on time and the line at Starbucks is 20 cars long. I want to feel confident about my sales team and they continue to miss targets. Conflict isn’t inherently bad. But because it contains so much potential energy, the challenge is how to negotiate that energy productively. Here are four strategies to leverage conflict for amazing results.
Re-frame conflict as energy
Think of conflict not as something bad or dangerous, but as energy. You’ve experienced the energy. Maybe it shows up as your mind racing as you replay a difficult interaction you had with your boss. Maybe it shows up as a knot in your stomach or racing heart and flushed face. For some people it manifests as excitement and heightened motivation. It’s all energy. When you become aware of conflict, use these questions to get re-focused:
“Where in my body am I feeling the energy?”
“What choices am I making about how to use this energy?”
Own your feelings
Leveraging the energy of conflict for positive results absolutely requires emotional awareness and insight. You’ve got to be honest and transparent with yourself. Conflict produces emotional responses, and these emotional response are what motivate us to act. Identifying and owning these emotional responses is paramount to healthy conflict. Otherwise, you will be acting on them without awareness and sending mixed messages to yourself and anyone else. Here are some guiding questions to help you discover your feelings.
Why is this gap bothering me?
How do I feel right now?
What emotions might be indicated by the physical sensations I am having?
Next step is to take full ownership of your emotions. Remind yourself of these four truths about feelings. Your feelings are yours alone. They do not belong to anyone else, and might not be shared by anyone else. Don’t assume others would feel the same way as you. Your feelings matter. Owning them and sharing them is an act of self-respect and assertiveness. It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you responsible. No-one else is responsible for your feelings. Not even the person or group with whom you are having conflict. Your feelings are a unique product of how you interpret what’s happening around you. The next person may have a completely different emotional response. So don’t blame your feelings on anyone else.
Bring your resources and an open mind
Healthy conflict requires creative problem solving. When you engage in conflict with someone, the purpose should be to achieve an emotional state better than the one you currently have. If you are feeling scared, would you like to feel safe? If you are anxious, would you like to feel certain? If you are angry, would you like to feel connected?
Here are several strategies for problem-solving conflict to achieve a better emotional state.
- Offer resources. What can you bring to the table to help? Time? Energy? Expertise? It’s OK to offer these as options.
- Keep an open mind to solutions. If you have your mind set on what the other person or group needs to do to make it right, you will invite defensiveness. If you are clear about how you want to feel but open to creative ways to get there, your chances of collaboration go way up.
- Be curious about where the other party is coming from. Learn all you can about their perspective and desires. When they feel heard, they will be more likely to struggle with you instead of against you. You might even find out you have a similar goal.
Know your non-negotiables
Conflict often arises out of violated boundaries, unmet expectations, or lack of clarity on what matters. Before engaging in conflict with someone, take time to get really clear about what matters most to you. What is at stake? What does this really mean for you? What boundaries or principles are being challenged?
Here are some strategies for knowing your non-negotiables.
- Keep it short and simple. Keep digging until you can identify one or two key elements that matter most for you. A long list of non-negotiable is a recipe for disaster because you will come across as impossible to please.
- Avoid ultimatums. Drawing lines in the sand invites adversarial relationships. Boundaries are not threats, so avoid describing them that way.
Nobody can engage in creative conflict when they feel threatened or afraid. Successful conflict requires emotional, physical, and psychological safety. Contrary to popular belief, the best way to create safety is to be open yourself. Share how you are feeling. Disclosing your emotions and showing empathy does not make you weak. In our experience, this might be the most important part of healthy conflict because it helps reduce defenses in the other person. Paradoxically, being open in the context of the other steps outlined above shows even more resolve and commitment to struggle with others instead of against them.
Here are some examples of what it might sound like to leverage positive conflict putting all five strategies together:
“I’ve had knots in my stomach because I’m feeling angry about what happened and I want to feel comfortable with you. I am willing to take time to understand your perspective and see what solutions we can come up with. Ultimately, it’s about trust for me. I want our relationship to be a trusting one. I’m anxious about where this might go. What’s your perspective?”
“I’ve been worrying on this all week. I’m really afraid about the direction our company is going. I have some projections I’m willing to share to help explain. My most important commitment is to the long-term stability of our company. I care about my team.”
Getting it perfect isn’t the point. Give it a try, pay attention to these five principles, and watch your confidence and effectiveness grow. It takes courage, practice, and a big dose of humility. Conflict can be used to create great things!