Conflict.  What comes to mind when you read that word?  How do you feel about conflict? Almost every team I’ve ever worked with comes to me asking for help with both uncovering unvoiced conflict and strategies for dealing more effectively with conflict when it arises. The way we deal with conflict – ignoring it, running away from it, confronting it – is a reflection of our early programming.

We bring our family of origin to work

The way we respond to power and group dynamics are echoes – sometimes very loud ones – of those we find in our family.  Indeed, our notion of leadership and what makes a team will also come from our earliest experiences of power and notions of “fitting in.” Similarly with conflict.

We learn how to manage conflict by watching how those around us deal with it

Perhaps we had one parent who was quick to verbalise disagreement, who might be quick to anger, acting out strong convictions of being right?  Perhaps our other parent would be the oil on troubled water, quick to agree, eager to bring down the tension?  Or perhaps we had parents of the same type – two “shouters” or two avoiders? In any of these cases, how many of us were able to witness on a regular basis resolution of difference?  Very often we might see our parents disagree – but what kind of process did they use to come back to a common understanding?

What we don’t understand controls us

Not understanding how to resolve conflict gives the very notion of conflict great power. “In most organisations, managers and employees have learnt to sweep conflicts under the rug in hopes that they will go away.  As a result, they have developed cultures that encourage people to NOT fully communicate what they really want and settle for partial solutions or no solutions at all. Denying the existence of our conflicts does not make them disappear, but simply gives them greater covert power.” ~ “Resolving Conflicts at Work” Kenneth Cloke & Joan Goldsmith I like to use the image of a bucket.  Every time we don’t speak openly – to either raise a point of disagreement or recognition – a drop falls into the bucket.  In no time at all, that bucket fills up and it’s only when it overflows, that the problem is acknowledged. That’s frequently when I am invited in to help.

The first step in changing anything, is awareness

So our model of the Emotional Thermostat is a useful kick off point for getting people to understand their usual reaction to disagreement and difference.

Then it’s important to reframe what conflict means

Conflict is proof of diversity and difference. Conflict is a necessary part of having open, creative dialogue.  Margaret Heffernan in her TED talk goes further in describing conflict.

Conflict equals real thinking

So, how many organisations indulge in real thinking?  Not many. Heffernan quotes a study where 85% of senior managers admit they are afraid to raise issues of commercial significance due to their fear of how they will be received.

The absence of robust thinking that comes from having thinking partners who are not echo chambers leads to organisations that make moral, ethical and commercial mistakes.  It leads to organisations who do not get the most out of their people.

Fear and anxiety cripple teams and organisations

By understanding what goes on in our brains, we can see the true consequences of our responses to conflict or our fear of conflict. Our amygdala is the air traffic control system for information we receive.  The information can go one of two ways.  It can direct traffic towards survival mode or towards competence – towards our “old brain” or our neo-frontal cortex, our new brain. However, this control system hasn’t been upgraded for centuries and has a hard time distinguishing between real survival needs (that lion is going to eat me) and imagined survival (what would happen if I speak up in a meeting?) Amygdala Response

As you can see, we lose an awful lot of great stuff when our amygdala – which tends to be on the over-cautious side – chooses survival. As a coach and consultant, it’s easy to spot the survival signs – there’s lots of water in that bucket. People have stopped talking to each other properly – so there is an absence of regular feedback and recognition and there is an absence of creativity and helpful conflict.  Jargon and process goes up, listening goes down. Meetings become more common, decisions less so.

Trust is low, which triggers more survival thinking

The good news is that with the right kind of guidance and training, where all sides can feel safe and accepted, new habits can be formed.  It does require skilled training and lots and lots of practice. The thing is, as Margeret Heffernan says – and I can attest to – when people get good at conflict it’s anything but scary. It’s exhilarating and creative and trust generating.  I never tire of seeing the relief on my clients’ faces when they say “that wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

If you’d prefer to listen to a podcast on the topic, click here

I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank