Wait, conflict can be GOOD??

“Have you talked to your group that you feel like you’re doing all the work?”

“No. I don’t like to be ‘that guy’.”

Well kid, none of us do. I mean, some people do, but then I’d be having a different conversation, probably with his group members, about how to accept the constructive criticism being offered. For as angry and confrontational as we all look on the news these days, we’re still terrible at effectively managing conflict.

The first issue here, as I see it, is how we’re understanding the word “conflict.” For many of us, I think we imagine anger, yelling, and that awkward and painful tension that underlies witnessing others battling it out. Cringe-worthy, indeed.

Consider instead that “conflict” is simply a disagreement between people, no matter the scale. It is a natural, inevitable process of interacting with people who aren’t ourselves.

You want different things for dinner, you prioritize spending differently, you have different values about … well, anything. To kick-off conflict, you technically only need one person who perceives that it’s a conflict happening. Consider all those times you’ve been stewing and steaming about that thing they did the wrong way, to the point it affects your actions. You, my friend, have created a conflict without even needing to talk to the other person.

It’s when you get more than one person involved that the fireworks start. Or, more likely, fizzle. It’s often the case that what one person was fuming about, the other didn’t realize was an issue, and once they’re aware, they can and do change it. But it’s the “making them aware” part that we’d so rather avoid, because what if it all goes horribly wrong and they don’t love me anymore? Or, more commonly, what if it hurts our working relationship?

NEWS FLASH: it hurts your (working) relationship a hell of a lot more when you’re hobbled by the weight of your unspoken woes. When handled well, experiencing conflict has remarkable benefits.

Despite how much we try to avoid it, conflict offers us fantastic opportunities to (re)assess situations, relationships, practices, and values. Acknowledging conflict is a moment to step back and see why we’re unsatisfied, uncomfortable, disgruntled, angry, or hurt.

Here’s the thing about conflict:  it signals interdependence.

There’s no reason for us to be in conflict about things or with people that don’t matter to us, or have no marked effect on our lives. Being in conflict means at the root of all this there’s something or someone you care about, be it values or lovers. Unearthing what it is you’re concerned about in this moment allows for problem diagnosis in ways we often aren’t willing to do, and even more importantly, offers opportunities for change.

Notice that it’s rare to see folks in the know talk about “solving” conflict; in small and big forms, it’s such a pervasive aspect of our lives that we instead work on managing it. Pretending we can stop it entirely is counterproductive and, in many cases, harmful to relationships.

I’ve found that when disagreements arise in their class groups, students often call for authoritative intervention from both sides of the coin– those who want me to tell their peers who’s wrong or right and what should be done about it, and those who are hurt and offended a group members got up the  guts to tell them their work wasn’t up to par.

Millennials are by no means the only ones who tiptoe around confrontation. A simple online search gives us options to read more about managing conflicts in workplaces, families, friendships, and just about any other interaction you can think of. In general, we can very quickly learn that the key is simply: don’t avoid it.

Well, yeah, in most cases that’s true, but how exactly does one do that? I mean, if I seek out a fight, aren’t I that guy?

The simple answer is that, you could be that guy, but you don’t have to be. Knowing that conflict can be positive is a good first step and can guide you through managing this one effectively. I’m not going to tackle the types of conflict management or various methods that have been developed over the years (yet). Instead, here’s first some advice to guide you approaching any conflict, and at the end of the post I’ve included some resources worth checking out for methods of working through the conflict more thoroughly.

Consider what’s at the root of the issue. Is it worth addressing?  If yes, consider what the situation looks like from the other person’s perspective. Is there something going on you’re unaware of, or perhaps a mis-perception of the situation? Are there cultural differences at the root of this? (This is far more common than we often realize, particularly in our increasingly connected world!)

It’s also important to assess how you think about conflict. What’s your orientation to conflict? These are the underlying values you have about approaching conflict situations, and shape how you handle it.

  • Win-Lose:  “One of us is going to walk away with what we want, the other’s going to lose out.” People can approach this from either end of the spectrum, always fighting to win, or stepping back and being willing to lose just to end the conflict.
  • Lose-Lose: “I don’t care if I don’t get what I want, as long as you don’t either.”
  • Win-Win: “How can we make this work for both of us?” Requires the most work, but often results in the most effective management, because it generally requires assessing the interdependence between parties and underlying values in conflict.

Obviously, each of these have their place, but in general, advocating for and working towards a Win-Win situation is most effective for all parties involved.

Considering examples for this post, I was at a loss about how to include all that came to mind. Fortunately (?), I realized that disagreements are rife within all of our lives, and to think through the ideas presented here each of you have plenty in your own experiences to call upon, small and big, trivial and serious. Conflict is inescapable. It’s crucial to developing and maintaining relationships across all the spheres of our lives, but requires learning how to do it well!



VOEMP (Vent, Own, EMpathize, Plan) – Used and taught by National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Trip leaders. Imagine being in the woods with 15 teenagers for a month, and know that this has been thoroughly tested!

8 Simple Rules to Managing Conflict, developed by Greg Geisen. The list may be simple, but each step is an important one to effectively handling conflict for long-term effectiveness. And Greg’s a good guy with great stories to demonstrate each of the steps and why they matter.

Managing Across Cultures: The Seven Keys to Doing Business with a Global Mindset offers case studies of working across cultures, explains the Geertz-Hofstede types of cultural values (while not perfect, they’re useful!), and guides readers through how the issues presented could have been handled more effectively. Sorry, I couldn’t find a helpful link other than the Amazon one.

Seek out Mediation. Seriously. Rather than trying to solve it for you, these are folks explicitly trained to guide you talking through your conflict with one another, and developing a plan to move forward that’s productive for everyone involved.


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