Q: I usually avoid conflict but that hasn’t been working. Is there such a thing as “healthy conflict”?
Conflict is a part of life. Even if you moved to Antarctica and lived alone, you would probably end up in conflict with yourself. But we often treat any conflict as if it’s the equivalent of war. It’s common for people to try to avoid conflict entirely. But that’s not possible.
Working from that premise that conflict is inevitable, the real question is whether it’s possible to disagree without becoming disagreeable.
There are two different ways to view conflict, but only one will lead to success in your relationships. If you take a negative view of conflict, you’ll see it as a pain to avoid or a problem to be solved. So, you’ll tend to either minimize the problem or catastrophize it to the point of all-out war. But a positive interpretation of conflict sees disagreements as opportunities to grow and to build relationships through collaboration.
Here are three cyclical steps to help you approach conflict in a healthy way that will strengthen your relationships.
#1 Collaborate – the first step to healthy conflict is to “steer into the skid” so to speak. Viewing conflict as a negative to be avoided doesn’t help, and plowing through usually does more harm than good. Try to view the other person as part of the solution, rather than as the problem. Seek a good time and place to work together, and mutually contribute ideas that might help address the issue between you.
After you establish a collaborative environment about the conflict, you can precede to:
#2 Gain Understanding – there are two sides to every coin and there are (at least) two perspectives to every conflict. Seek to understand the other person’s side of the conflict. This doesn’t mean you’ll agree with the other person. But you can’t work toward a solution to a problem you don’t understand (like Dr. Varner’s calculus exams). Have a conversation so that you both hear and strive to understand the other’s position.
Once each side has taken the time to understand the other, you can move to:
#3 Safely Seeking Solutions – when we feel heard and understood we usually feel safe. If you’re collaborating and working to understand each other, you should be in a place you both feel safe to identify solutions you desire. Work together to identify several options to address the issue and then pick one to try. The first round doesn’t always lead to a solution, and that’s ok. That’s why I said this was “cyclical.” You might go through the steps more than once in your pursuit of resolution and reconciliation.
TL;DR- Conflict, done healthily, is an opportunity to collaborate, gain understanding, and find solutions.