Healthy Conflict – Oxymoron or Essential Life Skill? by Barri Harris

I take great pride that others see me as someone who tries hard to find the “win-win” in most conversations, whether that is at work or with my family.  So I was shocked to realize that by trying to minimize or avoid situations that might involve conflict, I was making things much harder on myself and others!

How do you handle conflict?  Like me, do you try to limit your interactions with people that 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.

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.

We show up the same way at work.
I’ll bet you can immediately think of colleagues that don’t work well together.  We value the concept of “cross-functional collaboration” at work, but this often feels at odds with the reality that we feel more productive in our “silos” where we have more control.   In the terrific book called “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 team performance.  No surprise that rings true professionally and personally.

So, what can we do differently?

#1: Accept that we think and feel differently, and that’s a good thing.

Because conflict makes me uncomfortable, I tend to seek out people who think like me.  This provides a sense of harmony and ease.  Yet, even those who have similar backgrounds or outlooks still have their own ideas and have not yet recognized that I am always right (ok, just kidding).

Accept that conflict is a natural outcome of people bringing different ideas to the table.  If you are typically hesitant to assert your ideas 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 feeling shamed and different, I can vouch for the fact that working with a coach or therapist can make a huge difference in this area, and you’ll actually be much further ahead if you work on your own stuff before you point out someone else’s shortcomings in this area!

#2: Stay calm when conflict arises.

This is harder than it sounds, especially if you are someone that is already starting from a position of not feeling safe to voice your ideas, or feeling coerced to agree with another’s ideas that you don’t actually think is the “right answer”.

Your goal is to give yourself enough of a pause that you can detach from any emotional response to the other person, and use active listening to ask them questions to make sure you really understand what they are saying before you respond.  For most of us, that is not what we do naturally.  (If you do this naturally, please give me a call because I am always looking for a good coach!) Most of us get triggered emotionally without realizing it, and also immediately start thinking about how we are going to respond so that we can make the other person understand and agree to our point.   Guess what, that’s not actually a healthy response!

I have developed my own 3-step technique for staying calm over the years.  You can try this or find the steps that work for you.  I call it NAPP-ing.

#3: Take a NAPP (Notice, Ask, be Passionately Pragmatic)

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 (too late, I’m exploding) 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.  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 rationale thought until you calm down.  The art of maintaining your ability to stay detached amidst chaos and turmoil is a skill that you can practice and build over time.  Meditation really helps.  Consider it an investment in becoming a happier person.

Ask a question.

Healthy conflict is not the same as 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 language that seems obvious but both people are making very different assumptions about what is meant.  If you’ve ever heard the term “Active Listening”, this is it in action. Here’s a few questions that have worked well:

  • 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 decision to do “x”?
  • What else do you see as important here?

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.

Be 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;

Let’s test out the NAPP approach 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 from partner

I notice that the groan has triggered immediate rage and suggest that we meet in 5-10 minutes as I have to finish up something else, and I take a few minutes to breath and ground myself.

As a result, when we meet, I’m able to ask a question instead of immediately bringing forward my frustrations.

Hey, let’s talk for a minute about our “picture of success” for our bedroom.  I realize that we have different perspectives for what’s important to each of us.  When you think of coming into our bedroom at the end of the day, what things are important to you?

Notice that 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 and can see that for the most part, we have a similar sense of the desired end state.

Now I can be passionately pragmatic and tie my requests back to that shared picture of success in a way that uses humor instead of frustration.

“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 pj’s?”

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 pajamas.   Remember, it’s not the size of the issue that drives conflict (most conflict is over minutia), it’s the willingness to stay open-minded, and focus on the picture of success so that you can be flexible about the tactical steps of how to get there, that allow for healthy conflict.

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




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