Conflict Competence

How to be a leader who handles conflicts well, and how to build a team that embraces constructive conflict.

I interviewed Tim Flanagan, Director of Custom Programs, and his co-author Craig Runde, both of the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College.  Their books include:

Also joining the conversation was Brian Cole Miller, bestselling author of Nice Teams Finish Last: The Secret to Unleashing Your Team’s Maximum Potential.

Most of us consider conflict to be bad. Conflicts are often associated with negative feelings, discomfort, mutual misunderstanding, and a variety of both active and passive negative behaviors.

Now ask yourself this question: have you ever had a conflict situation that ended well?

Most people would say “Yes” — dig deeper, and ask them about that end result. Often, the result is much more positive than expected. I would claim that the most positive results we experience in work and in private life are the results that come from constructive conflict.
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Broadly, conflict is the state where two parties have different values, or agendas, or perspectives, or interests. If we accept that conflict can be either positive or negative depending on how we behave, then conflict can become a doorway into very positive results — most workplace and personal conflicts can be resolved with synergy, synthesis, and win-win outcomes.

The trick, of course, is knowing how to handle conflicts constructively. It requires a lot more than just calling problems “opportunities” and nattering on about win-win results. For most of us, conflict is hard, and learning conflict competence may not be simple or easy.


The first step in Conflict Competence is the same first step for other personal improvements such as beating procrastination, overcoming OCD behaviors, or enhancing Emotional Intelligence. That first step is Mindfulness.

Mindfulness refers to being aware of our thoughts, feelings and actions. When you are Mindful, you notice your thoughts as you think them, you notice your feelings as you feel them, and you notice your behaviors as you do them. This is the opposite of “automatic” or reflexive behavior.

Once you are mindful, you can choose your responses to your environment — you “respond” instead of “react” and you can sidestep the conflict traps you may otherwise fall into.

The brain can be thought of as existing in three layers — a deep reptile brain that controls to fight, flight, and hunger; on top of that is the mammal brain that is the seat of emotion and a lot of social interaction, including a sense of belonging; and the top of that is the primate brain region that handles cognition, reasoning, etc. In traditional response to conflict, we may feel emotionally threatened or physically threatened, and the lower areas of the brain take over — leaving us directly to the negative conflict behaviors such as displaying anger, attempting to defeat the other person, or withdrawing or withholding information.

Cooling Down and Slowing Down

A great habit to practice is, in every conflict situation, choose to cool down and slow down. This can include breathing exercises, learning to create multiple interpretations of the available data (which prevents you from getting too stuck on one possibly negative interpretation), and so on.

“When you are furious you can’t be curious.” – John Gottman

With practice over time you can train yourself to pick the better of these two paths:  “You disagree with me, and I find that threatening,” or “You disagree with me and I find that interesting.”  The first of these will take us down the negative conflict path, and the second one will take us down the positive or constructive conflict path.

Types of Responses to Conflict
Constructive Destructive
Active perspective taking
creating solutions
expressing emotions
reaching out

winning at all costs
displaying anger
demeaning others

Passive reflective thinking
delay responding

hiding emotions

Example of Conflict
Take the case where a manager, Jim, gets a rush order late Thursday from an important client.  He turns to his best worker, Joe, and says “Joe, I need you to work overtime this weekend.”

Joe feels like his personal life is being disrupted for no good reason, he feels picked on, and he blows up — this is just another example of Jim and the rest of the company not planning ahead, and he has to do the extra work because of someone else’s incompetence.  He feels like somehow he’s being blamed or punished for something that’s not his fault.

Now that Joe has blown up at him, Jim feels that his authority is being challenged.  Jim pulls rank and says “I’m your boss and I’m telling you you’re working overtime this weekend.”  They both feel badly treated by the other.  Each has to some extent invented motivations and meanings for the other one.  And the whole thing was avoidable.

Let’s look in more detail at active, constructive conflict behaviors.

Perspective Taking
Taking the other person’s perspective, walking in their shoes, and seeing the situation from their point of view. This requires empathy. When you do it well, you can state the other person’s view as well as they can themselves.

Creating Solutions
This involves discussing with the other person multiple approaches to solving the problem.  This is in contrast to trying to allocate blame.

Expressing Emotions
By responsibly and gently sharing with the other person what you are feeling, you can clarify what emotions you are and are not feeling.  This can help you relax because you’re not hiding or bottling up your emotions, and you can help the other person know that, for instance, you’re sad not mad, or you’re frustrated at a system, not angry at a person.  This needs to be done with a cool temper.  The key here is to describe the emotion, not to act out the emotion.  Pete Friedes’ example dialog works here:  “When you __, I feel __, because of the consequence ___.”

Bottling up strong emotion is not sustainable. People are frequently tempted to not share their emotions in the workplace, because they imagine they are “preserving the relationship” or “keeping harmony.” And the reality is that we are lying about our emotions, we are missing an opportunity to build real rapport and trust, and then the emotions leak out any way via things like snide or cutting remarks.

Reaching Out
When you initiate contact with the other person using an overture to move the conflict in a positive direction — an “olive branch,” perhaps including an apology if one is warranted. You may even have to do this, get rejected, wait a few days and try again.

Attributing Motives to Our Conflict Partners

We typically attribute much worse motives to the other person than to ourselves. We are always the heroes of our own stories.

It may not take two people to start a fight — it only takes one belligerent. However to sustain a negative interaction requires two people. It only takes one person to derail a negative conflict pattern.

Brian Cole Miller joined the conversation to share the lessons he summarizes in his outstanding book “Nice Teams Finish Last” — that teams that try to avoid conflict, end up under-performing. There’s a sweet spot between no conflict and too much conflict, where we are maximally effective.

I have a former client whose top managers are extremely nice to each other. They used to have a pretty toxic person who left some years ago, and they’re so relieved to have that toxic element gone that they don’t want to do anything remotely like it. That includes vigorous debate.

Brian’s “Too Nice” and “Too Fierce” teams are, as I see it, in the two different “Destructive” cells in the table up above — the former are doing the passive destructive behaviors of avoiding, yielding, hiding emotions, and self-criticizing — and the latter are doing the active destructive behaviors of winning at all costs, displaying anger, demeaning others, and retaliating.

Another way to see it is, as teams try to move through the standard four phases of team formation (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing) the “nice” team forms, bumps up against the storming phase, recoils from it and settles down in an overly polite, non-candid mode.

Brian’s other extreme, the “fierce” team, gets stuck in storming.

Boards of Directors frequently will never get out of Forming because they don’t see each other often enough to build the relationships needed for high trust and high performance.

See also: Emotional Intelligence; Emotional Intelligence self-test;
Listen to the complete interview.

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