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Why do conflicts have such a bad reputation?

Conflict is increasingly becoming associated with uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety. It seems to be something that needs to be removed. Is the “positivity overkill” putting us under pressure? Here’s how we can get comfortable with discomfort.

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When I introduce myself as a coach, conversations get interesting: I’m asked many questions and I’m asked for advice (even though coaching is not about giving advice).

Conversely, I have noticed that when I introduce myself as a mediator, reactions are mixed. 

It seems like that in many people’s perception mediation means trouble.

An HR manager once inquired about a team workshop and she explicitly asked me not to mention mediation, „otherwise it would mean the team has a conflict”.

A school principal told me they were not going to recommend mediation to parents, even if they saw that a child was affected by family conflic because they “didn’t want to tell the parents they thought they had a conflict”.

Nobody has ever a conflict. Until they do.

What’s so indecent about conflict?

“Conflict”, just like “problem”, seems to have become an anti-word – undeservedly, I think.

Conflict is increasingly becoming associated with uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety. 

When I ask clients, they often tell me that they perceive conflict as something destabilizing, distracting and that needs to be removed.

I believe that the perception of conflict is linked to the perception of failure. Having a conflict has been made to mean that someone is showing weakness or has failed at harmony.

While I am a strong advocate of mindset shifts, I don’t agree that “conflict” needs to be rephrased in “challenge” or something more positive. Prescribing not to perceive a situation as conflict doesn’t make the conflict go away and the truth is, there’s a reason why we sometimes need to stay in that uncomfortable place. 

Is the “positivity overkill” stopping you from dealing with discomfort?

The belief that conflict will necessarily lead to pain, distress or even a loss of reputation is prompting people to hide, deny and minimalize tough feelings, particularly those of vulnerability and anxiety. 

I dare say that over-emphasizing the positive reframing of negative emotions is a way of repressing them. It’s like relying on a formula for instant wellbeing instead of relying on one’s ability to deal with whatever will emerge out of an unexpected situation.

In conflict we experience mixed feelings: we may feel strong and weak at the same time. We take risks and we get to deal with ambiguous emotions as well as with ambiguous reactions. The categories of “positive” and “negative” change rapidly and even coexist.

Would we get better at dealing with the VUCA world we are told to live in if we’d get better at dealing with conflict?

How to stay with uncertainty   

I believe we need to handle uncertainty with more confidence and peace of mind. 

The first step is to accept that there will be times, especially during conflict, where we will be challenged to cope with a temporary lack of solutions.

This is only possible with a constructive mindset that sees failure as a testing playground for correction, not as a catastrophe.

“Permanent beta”, the stage of continuous experimentation, is a good metaphor for the attitude I believe we should try to adopt in conflict.

Taking the courage to express our point of view, knowing that it will be different from others’, will help us fine-tune our ideas. We will then have the chance to feel ever more committed to our ideas or we can embrace a different perspective. 

Either way, there will be progress, growth, and change.

Dealing with conflict consciously will also increase our self-awareness as well as our interpersonal and situational awareness. Interpersonal relationships (in private and work life) are highly complex and constantly evolving. The more we dare to delve into the unpredictable emotions that may emerge during a disagreement, the more competent we become at recognizing and responding to moods, behaviors and communication styles. 

Last, but not least, it needs to be said that often the least expected insights ideas and solutions arise out of conflict. Therefore, I encourage you to enjoy every minute of it and all the good that might come out of it.

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