When conflicts arise in our relationships at home and at work, they are almost always pointing to something trying to shift, something trying to happen. Too often our discomfort with conflict creates fear and avoidance and we miss opportunities to facilitate important change and essential progress. These missed opportunities create stagnation in our life, careers, and relationships — but also in our communities, workplaces and in the world at large.
Learning to face conflict skillfully is an essential component of being an agent of positive change. And those who are masterful in conflict tend to be natural leaders, exceptionally confident and highly respected. In order to master conflict, we must first measure and assess if the conflict can be addressed effectively. This requires trust and positivity at the foundation of the relationships between the parties involved.
I had to learn this the hard way.
A week before I received my certification in organizational coaching, I got the dream call to coach a highly visible team in a world-renowned company. This team was considered toxic — in conflict with each other and with the organization. It was my first meaty assignment in group coaching and my challenge was to resolve the conflict and create sustainable cohesion. With my certification hot off the press and all my ducks in a row, I entered the assignment with unwarranted confidence and the exact wrong approach. I consider it my crash course in the complexities of conflict — what works and what does not when it comes to conflict resolution.
Prior to meeting the team, I conducted research and analysis by interviewing close to 50 people at the organization in order to get under the surface of this team’s dysfunction. I discovered the team was made up of highly competitive individuals and a leader who had not defined a common goal other than to hit the numbers. Competitive people without a collective rally call inevitably begin to compete with each other. Not only were these team members working in silos and land-grabbing within their team, but they were also seen by the organization at large as extremely difficult to work with.
Naively, I kicked off the team coaching by unveiling the group’s collective weaknesses, failures, and poor reputation. My approach perpetuated their lack of trust in each other, and the team went into negativity overload.
Any relationship system overloaded with negativity will not be able to effectively work through issues and conflict in a constructive way. I quickly pivoted away from negative feedback to building human connection, deepening their understanding of each other’s passions and challenges, and shining a light on what was working between them. Building up this positivity helped lay the groundwork for engaging in difficult discussions and constructively dealing with their core conflicts. With this approach, the team was able to gradually decrease internal competition, increase collaboration, emerge as a positive force within the organization, and identify an inspiring, common rally call.
Assessing the level of trust prior to engaging in conflict will determine whether the system is ready to collectively address issues and conflict. The primary indicators of conflict without trust show up through unproductive dialogue where people are trying to 1) win arguments without listening to other points of view, and 2) advance personal agendas through manipulative communication and behavior.
On the other hand, the primary indicators of conflict with trust show up through passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to all parties. The general attitude of all participants is openness to being influenced. There is a depth in the listening and a shared desire for mutually agreed outcomes.
When trust is not present, the conflict often ends with tarnished relationships, further erosion of trust, and outcomes that are forced without buy-in. When trust and respect are at the foundation of the relationship, team, or group involved in the conflict, it often resolves and results in new pathways forward.
To engage in or facilitate constructive conflict, consider the following steps:
STEP 1: ASSESS NEGATIVITY: Use these questions to assess levels of negativity:
- Is there respect in this system? How do I know this?
- On a scale from 1–10, how much trust is in this system? Why?
- Is persistent blame and/or defensiveness present?
- Based on your answers, discern if this system is ready to engage in constructive conflict. If not, go to step two.
STEP 2: INFUSE POSITIVITY: Infusing positivity has to come from a place of authentic intention. Some good ways to generate positivity include:
- Listen to the other person’s point of view.
- Mine for common ground and common interests.
- Show an openness to compromise.
- Put the relationship above your agenda.
STEP 3: PLAY WITH CONFLICT: Once a base level of positivity has been established, you can begin to play around with the conflict at hand.
- PUT THE CONFLICT OUT IN FRONT: Put the conflict out in front, instead of in between you. Join together define and clarify what this conflict is about and agree to solve it together vs. from opposing sides.
- PRACTICE DEEP DEMOCRACY: Listen to all the perspectives and experiences present before jumping to a position.
- SHARE THE DREAM: There is always a dream behind a complaint or conflict. Allow opposing parties to share their dream for the outcome they want to achieve.
- FIND COLLECTIVE SOLUTIONS: Brainstorm collective solutions and agree to experiment with several different options.
- FOLLOW THROUGH: Put these options and actions into motion and check in with all parties involved to ensure the conflict is being addressed.
Coaching Questions to Consider:
- Name a conflict you had with someone or some group where trust was not present. How did it end?
- Think of a conflict you had with someone or some group where trust was at the foundation. How did that end?
- Think of a current conflict you are avoiding. What did you learn from the above that you can utilize to face this conflict and steer the discussion towards a collaborative solution?
Kristine Steinberg is the CEO of Kismet. She believes that your life should be deeply fulfilling — not tolerated. Partner with Kismet to dismantle fear, define your path, and lead with courage. Start your transformation today: www.thisiskismet.com.