Here’s What’s Good About Conflict

As social beings, people are born, bred, and raised for the most part to avoid conflict. But that’s impossible, of course, because – as I have mentioned previously – so many of us have different agendas, priorities, points of view, roles to play, values, opinions, personalities, working styles, and so forth.

Last time, I wrote about reaching agreements in difficult group situations. That’s a helpful and worthwhile goal, of course. But what I neglected to mention is that group conflict can also have some positive features, particularly if it’s the “good” kind.

The difference between “good” and “bad” conflict lies in how it’s conducted, and the results it produces.

For example:

Good Conflict Helps Find the Best Way Forward

Disagreements can be worthwhile when differing points of view, skills sets, knowledge and experience stimulate the group to explore the full range of factors, forces, opportunities, and ways of thinking in the difficult situation.

This is because the group – when everyone agrees from the outset on the problem, its causes, and the available range of solutions – can easily overlook a great many viable possibilities. But when there’s a level of conflict over what’s going on and how to move forward, the group is far more likely to confront some additional possibilities that can lead to valuable, fruitful results.

Good Conflict Builds Trust

When group members disagree, there’s a danger emotions will run high and people will feel undermined by others. The outcome is far more positive, however, when everyone honestly tries to find the way forward that’s best for the immediate group and the larger organization.

This collaborative style of group interaction is highly productive and probably the formula most likely to find whatever may be the best way forward.

But even better, “fighting fair” is likely to promote the feeling everyone is well-intentioned, trustworthy, and trying to bring something valuable to the table. These feelings lead to better personal interactions not only now, but in the future, too.

Good Conflict Makes You Proud

In addition to developing a good outcome and building interpersonal trust, “good” conflict tends to make participants feel proud of themselves, for:

  • Capably articulating their thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and experience to others,
  • Standing up to the pressures of a difficult situation,
  • Contributing to a group effort that produces satisfying results,
  • Learning more about and feeling closer to at least some of the others in the group.

How to Have Good Conflict

Because “good” conflict is something desirable and beneficial, it’s important to recognize when it’s happening and understand how to foster it.

Here are some guidelines to help you promote “good” conflict in any upcoming difficult situations you may face:

Recognize All Valid Agendas

Good conflict is more likely when everyone in the group feels both heard and valued. For this reason, it’s important the group makes a point of soliciting everyone’s contributions, including their:

  • Analysis of the difficult situation,
  • Relevant ideas, facts, or considerations,
  • Priorities, concerns, fears, or uncertainties about any potential results or plans of action.

Admit You Are “All In”

It’s common for emotions to run high in the midst of difficult situations and group conflicts. This can lead to shouting, impatience, anger, and other strong emotions – even tears.

Many of us feel uncomfortable showing too much emotion in group settings, so we may shy away from engagement or allow others to steamroll us.

A better way to participate and promote “good” conflict, however, is to openly express your deeper emotions. This is far easier to do and more readily accepted by others when you make an explicit admission along the lines of: “I’m heavily involved in this.”  

A remark admitting how much you care about the process and the outcome makes it less embarrassing – perhaps even somewhat commendable – to show more of your inner feelings. Others will usually respond by honoring your heartfelt commitment and paying more attention to your contributions.

Use Questions Instead of Statements

While admitting your feelings run deep usually helps carve out more room for your input, as you feel your way forward it’s better to avoid heavy-handed tactics or imperious demands.

Instead, try to frame your input in the form of questions.

Almost anything you want to say usually seems less aggressive or demanding when it’s in the form of a question rather than a statement. Try talking in terms like:

  • What if we …?
  • How would you feel if …?
  • Can we (find a way to) …?
  • Who here thinks …?

and so forth.

Seek Best Options Instead of Outright Victory

It’s also important to remember that the goal is not to bludgeon the group into following your lead, but to overcome the conflicts and find the best way forward.

Instead of trying to prevail or force others to admit their errors, it’s more productive to focus your energies – and those of the group – away from interpersonal conflicts. This can involve:

  • Focusing on the content of people’s input more than who is putting the idea forward or how they are expressing it,
  • Combining, where appropriate, the best elements of several people’s input,
  • Regularly measuring the value of any idea by reference to the overarching goal.

While “bad” conflict tends to make situations and group dynamics worse, “good” conflict tends to be healthy, productive, and effective on multiple levels, producing satisfaction with results, stronger group cohesion, and personal feelings of success.

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