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7 Keys to Making Conflict Healthy and Constructive

These strategies will help you stay focused, positive and productive

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Conflict is the second leading cause of workplace stress after workload, according to the American Institute of Stress. But we can reduce that stress by making some changes to how we approach conflict at work.

While many of us find conflict awkward and uncomfortable, it is a crucial element of collaborative relationships. Conflict produces better solutions and provides the opportunity to see a variety of perspectives. It is actually a very positive part of communication and healthy relationships. Combat, however, is destructive to both.

Conflict occurs when people don’t see eye to eye about an issue, situation, or goal. Combat, on the other hand, is when conflict becomes personal. Here is an example of each:

Conflict: “I disagree with the approach we are taking”
Combat: “What don’t you get? My 3-year-old knows this won’t work!”

See the difference? Combat is virtually always unproductive and in most cases highly destructive.

Unfortunately, conflict terrifies a lot of people. Some were raised in a family where overt conflict wasn’t allowed and people were passive aggressive instead. Others were raised in a situation where really negative conflict, such as screaming and fighting, happened all the time, and they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Neither is a healthy approach.

So how do you effectively manage conflict so it doesn’t turn in to combat? Here are seven steps that will help you keep conflict stay healthy and productive:

1. Clearly Communicate What You Want or Need.

In his article The Lost Art of Candor in the Workplace, Gregory Ciotti says that direct, candid feedback is a key to how successful teams and organizations operate. He explains that cultivating candor requires a delicate balance. You have to tread the line between “brutally honest” and “necessarily honest.” One is about putting people down while the other is about the free flow of information. Rather than avoiding conflict, getting aggressive, or becoming passive aggressive, assertively communicate what you want and need from others. Clearly communicate your expectations and ensure understanding.

2. Get to the Point.

In his Harvard Business Review article How to Start a Conversation You’re Dreading, Peter Bregman (@peterbregman) suggests getting to the important information in the first sentence, even if you are dreading it. Start the conversation with candid feedback, and then use the rest of the conversation to work toward a mutually beneficial solution. Being vague and avoiding the real topic creates confusion and lack of clarity.

3. Understand Communication Style Differences.

We all have different styles in how we communicate, and we see the world through our own lenses and perspectives. Keeping conflict healthy requires us to understand our own communication styles and those of others. Are there people you work with who frequently misunderstand what you are trying to communicate? Understanding how their communication style differs from yours will help you to minimize misunderstandings and communicate more clearly and effectively.

4. Replace “You” Language with “I” Language.

Think about how you feel when someone begins a sentence with “You should….” or “You always….” Instantly, we become defensive. But when someone begins a sentence with “I feel….” or “I need….” we are more receptive. Rather than saying, “You always turn things in late,” try “We agreed on a deadline. What can I do to help you meet it?”

5. Focus on the Issue, Not the Person.

According to a meta-analysis of many surveys, people in conflicts take things personally 70 percent of the time. As soon as you make the discussion personal, you run the risk of combat. If you keep the conversation about the issue, you will reduce defensiveness.

6. Paraphrase.

“What I hear you saying is ____. Is that correct?” This is one of the simplest, most powerful communication tools to keep conflict from turning into combat.

7. Seek Understanding, Not Agreement.

Really make an effort to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint, rather than convince them of yours. Share your desire to see the situation from their perspective. Get curious and ask questions. 

Making conflict healthy requires us to break out of old habits and to take a proactive approach to how we communicate. Practice these seven steps as you approach challenging conversations and situations. The goal should not be to avoid conflict, but to embrace it, staying focused on productive outcomes.

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