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Running Towards Conflict

I have a confession. Everytime I see a fire truck pass me by, I get a little choked up. I would imagine that emotion comes from the deep respect I gained for those first responders during 9/11. While that day will forever strike an emotional chord with me for a host of reasons, I’ve been incredibly moved by the heroism and courage of those fire fighters who fought so hard in the rescue efforts.

Though I am no hero, the concept of “running into the flames” has always resonated with me. In business, there is no true life or death at stake. However, sometimes situations arise that have potentially catastrophic damage if they are not addressed. Perhaps a customer complaint which could lead to revenue being pulled, or an employee complaint of inappropriate behavior of a colleague. The thing is, I have found that in work, as well as in life, many people try to avoid solving the problem head on.

I’ve never quite understood that approach.  Perhaps it was my upbringing in an Italian American family, where we argued for sport at the dinner table. Or maybe it comes from being one of the only women on a team of men throughout the majority of my career. Somewhere along the line, I realized that if I didn’t become comfortable with surfacing the issues, they might get swept under the rug to fester.

In both our work and personal lives, few people actually consider the notion of “conflict” to be fun. However, depending on how you choose to approach its true intent, strengthening your ability to do it can have massive benefits.

First, consider why you might be avoiding conflict. Nearly everyone seemingly wants to avoid conflict because they do not want to hurt another person, or cause potential problems. And yet, think back to all the conflicts you’ve avoided in your life. Did the problems ultimately resolve themselves?  Maybe in some cases, but largely speaking, I’d imagine they did not. Often, the problems can build and become damaged to the point of no return. No one wants that.

So how does one summon the courage to address conflict?  Like most challenging things in life, it’s all in the approach.

  1. Consider the positive outcome. Disagreeing, whether with a co-worker or a life partner, can strengthen and deepen relationships if handled constructively and respectfully. When you explore those areas of disagreement, you’ll learn more about what individuals, teams, etc. value, vs. what isn’t valued.  You’ll gain deeper insights into what others find important, and in doing so force yourself to consider how you raise your points, react to others, and how to compromise and negotiate.  When you enter into the conflict seeking to understand in addition to just being understood you open the door to a stronger relationship. This is critical, because if you marry the notions of seeking to understand with good communication and a dash of self-control, you are well on your way to morphing your conflict into a more open, productive dialogue.
  2. Creating “Impact Together.” When people come together to manage through conflict constructively, they allow themselves to dig deeper to the core of where the trouble really lies. For example, one team could have conflict with their manager about what their work lives will look like after returning to the office after the pandemic. Avoiding the conflict could mean team members never sharing what’s important to them as they are redesigning the future for the team. They could choose to leave if their manager doesn’t provide a safe place to share their concerns or aspirations. However, by creating an environment where the manager can share what’s important to her, she should also create the space for the team to share, respond, request, etc. In other words, by establishing an environment where a healthy dialogue can take place, it forces the team together to problem solve. That approach doesn’t promise an outcome that will make every single person happy, but the very act of brainstorming and solving problems together brings everyone closer to a positive outcome.
  3. Increased trust.  Any opportunity that allows people to be able to share their thoughts and feelings in a constructive manner can only serve to strengthen relationships. Working through challenges together and coming to a respected solution can lead to enhanced trust. And the more individuals or teams work through difficult times together, the less intimidating it becomes. The more that healthy dynamic becomes the norm, the feeling of conflict subsides. Doesn’t collaborative problem solving seem far less intimidating than “working through conflict?” That occurs when people trust each other.
  4. Choosing your battles. When I was married, it drove me insane that my husband would attempt to toss his socks into our hamper each night like he thought he was LeBron James. Of course, the majority of the time, the socks landed outside of the hamper, where they would stay until I bugged him enough to pick them up. In this silly example, a seemingly small issue like ignoring socks was highlighting a far bigger issue resulting in conflict. He thought I was a nag for constantly bugging him about such a small thing. However, to me, it was more about feeling like he was creating more work for me. One day, we actually sat down and talked about the issue with the socks. In listening to each other, we sought to understand the other’s perspective. Once I understood we just looked at this silly situation totally differently and applied very different significance to it, I stopped bugging him. And he made more of an effort to get them in. In other words, sometimes the “small things” are actually indicative of a much bigger problem. Being able to tackle them long before they spiral into much larger issues turns a potentially conflict rich situation into a far healthier approach.

I will never share the bravery that our firefighters must summon each time the head straight into a burning building. However, I have invested much time and energy in learning how to run into the fires of life and work with positive results. By remembering to listen to understand, sharing your own perspective, and then compromising and collaborating to determine a solution that everyone can feel comfortable with, you’re turning the scary notion of “conflict” into a trusting, valued problem solving strategy.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.