Ask anyone about “conflict” and what it means, and you’ll mostly like get a litany of negative descriptors such as: painful, damaging, draining, upsetting, infuriating, disrespectful, demeaning and relationship-crushing. There are many factors that influence our perception of conflict, including our own personal, professional and childhood experiences with it, but it's clear the majority of us dread conflict, and don’t recognize any positive, life-affirming aspects of it.
To learn more about conflict and how we can shape our own conflicts to be more productive and beneficial exchanges, I recently caught up with Dr. Nate Regier. Nate is the co-founding owner and chief executive officer of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in building cultures of compassionate accountability. A former practicing psychologist, Regier is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, team building and change management. An international adviser, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer and Process Communication Model certifying master trainer, and has published two books: Beyond Drama and his latest work, Conflict Without Casualties.
Nate, from your perspective, why does conflict get such a bad rap?
Most people have negative associations with conflict, usually from personal experience. Maybe it was from growing up in a home where conflict turned nasty and people got hurt. Maybe it’s from working in environments where people use passive-aggressive tactics to get what they want when there’s conflict. You don’t have to look far to see the casualties of conflict in our world. Consequently, it’s easy to believe some common myths about conflict.
Here are the most common and damaging myths about conflict:
Peace is the absence of conflict.
Not true. Peace is an active, dynamic, and generative process that requires healthy conflict. If peace means we are getting along, cooperating, and not hurting each other, then we can’t get there without addressing our differences and disagreements.
Conflict is destructive.
Not necessarily! Mythologist, poet, and psychologist Michael Meade believes that the purpose of conflict is to create. If we define conflict simply as a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing, then the real question becomes, “How are we going to close the gap?” Sometimes closing that gap creates some tremendously positive things.
Conflict should be managed or reduced.
And get rid of all that energy? The problem with conflict reduction, mediation, or management philosophies is that they make conflict out to be the culprit. Conflict isn’t the problem. Conflict is simply a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing, a powerful source of energy. The goal isn’t to get rid of conflict, but to use it to create instead of destroy.
Compassion leads to less conflict.
Less casualties, hopefully, but not less conflict. Many people misunderstand compassion to be about empathy, sympathy, caring, support, and doing good for others. The Latin root of the word means “to struggle (or suffer) with.” Compassion means to get in the trenches with another person, suffer together, and share in the difficult responsibility of creating something amazing through conflict. Compassion does not mean doing it for them, rescuing them, or avoiding accountability. It means walking into the fire, together.
In your work, how are you seeing negative conflict impacting businesses?
To me, negative conflict and drama are synonymous. We define drama as struggling against self or others, with or without awareness, to feel justified about our negative behavior. Drama is expensive! Gallup research estimates the cost of workplace drama at over $350 billion per year in the United States.
We’ve polled our clients and here are their most costly energy vampires caused by drama:
- Lack of follow-through
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Resisting change
- Unproductive meetings
One hospital lost $13 million on a new EMR system because interdepartmental drama sabotaged the implementation process.
How is negative conflict perpetuated within organizations?
Culture, culture, culture. Drama-based cultures have these features in common:
Policies over conversations
The bigger your policy manual, the more drama you have. Making a new policy to deal with the behavior of a few people perpetuates negative conflict by avoiding the real conversation and not holding leaders accountable.
Drama-based performance reviews
If your review is done annually or even semi-annually, and if the evaluation is one-sided from the top down, then negative conflict is being perpetuated. Many companies are moving to a more conversational and frequent approach to dealing with performance.
Companies that expect their employees to perform and assume they should be grateful and loyal simply to have a job are losing great people. Millennials want to be courted, trained, motivated, and engaged. A job, even with good pay, isn’t enough anymore.
Drama allies are allowed to thrive
Gossip, passive-aggressive behavior, and inter-departmental competition is allowed, even encouraged, in many cultures. The problem grows because leadership doesn’t require and facilitate direct conversations around differences and disagreements.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when entering into conflict?
These are the top mistakes I see:
Failure to be open. Openness creates a safe space to have conflict. Sharing real feelings, empathizing, and disclosing motives is the best way to set the stage for healthy conflict, even though it feels vulnerable.
Lack of awareness around emotional motives. Most people don’t take the time or energy to discover their real motives, usually emotional. How do you want to feel in the end? Safe? Confident? Supported? Connected? Identifying this emotional motive is critical in order to problem-solve effectively and have a lasting solution. Especially avoid re-victimizing and blaming feeling words, such as “hurt,” “attacked,” or “disrespected.” These are false because nobody can make you feel a certain way.
Blaming, accusations, and assumptions. The modus operandi in drama is to feel justified, to be able to say, “See I was right!” Blaming the other person, or accusing them of a certain motive only adds fuel to the fire.
Misguided non-negotiables. During conflict people often get overzealous about their boundaries, making unreasonable demands. Or, they avoid setting boundaries and sticking to core principles in order to keep the peace. Either way, the conversation lacks healthy structure.
What are some powerful strategies for success?
These are the most positive and empowering strategies to engage in positive conflict that generates success and reward for all parties:
Reframe conflict as energy.
Nobody has to get hurt. It’s not a win-lose situation. Think of success as being achieved when each party can feel confident that their emotional motives are being addressed.
Own your feelings.
You’ve got to be honest and transparent with yourself. Conflict produces emotional responses, and these emotional responses are what motivate us to act. If you don’t own and state your feelings, you will be acting on them without awareness and sending mixed messages to yourself and anyone else.
Bring your resources and an open mind.
Avoid coming in with expected behaviors or ultimatums from the other person. Instead, identify what resources you can offer to help solve the problem, and what resources you want from the other person, e.g. information, time, or energy. If you are clear about your emotional motives, then be open to creative ways to move in that direction. Who knows you might be able to satisfy your emotional motive in ways you never thoughts possible.
Know your non-negotiables.
Get crystal clear about the principles at stake for you. What is it really about? Keep it simple and reasonable. Expressing your non-negotiable boundaries and principles isn’t about drawing lines in the sand. It’s about disclosing what’s guiding you during the conflict.
Finally, Nate, how does having positive conflict impact organizations?
The biggest energy crisis facing our world is the misuse of conflict energy. Positive conflict turns all that energy into productive outcomes. Some examples include: meetings with purpose and clear behavioral outcomes, safe and accountable performance conversations, mutual respect among departments, innovation spurred by healthy conflict in a win-win environment, direct conversations instead of gossip and back-stabbing, learning from failure instead of making excuses.
Better communication and healthy conflict saved one client of ours $50,000 in one year just in reduced meeting time among his executive team.
* * * * * * * *
I appreciate and support Nate’s great insights on conflict here. I believe, however, that the thing people need to understand above all else about conflict is this: When someone else doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t mean that you're less than” or that they’re trying to hurt or disrespect you. It means they don’t agree. Period. When you can manage your own emotions and reactions and do the inner and outer work necessary to not feel demeaned, hurt or threatened by disagreement, you’ll go a great distance to embracing conflict and turning it into positive creation.
Read the original article on Forbes.