3 Ways to Engage in Conflict (Without Killing Your Coworkers)

We’ve all been there before…

Sitting in a team meeting, things are ticking along as usual, until … someone disagrees.

Awkward, right?

But you know what’s worse? … Your team wraps up yet another harmonious meeting, and you can sense something subtly “off” in the air.  You know deep down that someone doesn’t agree with the decision being made (maybe it’s you), but fear of discomfort overrules, and not a word is spoken.

Dealing with conflict can be uncomfortable and messy, which is why many leaders and teams avoid it all together.  And yet engaging in conflict allows a team to explore different perspectives and achieve real commitment to the best possible answer.

Even if you can appreciate the value of conflict, it can still be hard to figure out how to engage with it in a healthy, productive way.

Here are 3 practical tips for ensuring a healthy dose of conflict in your organization:

1.  Reframe it

We are wired, from a young age, to view conflict negatively.  Conflict = fight, battle, war, struggle, strife.  Geesh!  No wonder we avoid it at all costs.

What if you could look at conflict differently?  Imagine how your team would engage in conflict if instead conflict = productive disagreement, an exploration to find the best solution, a necessary step to achieving commitment.

The first step to getting your team to engage in conflict is to help people reframe it in more positive, welcoming terms.

2.  Encourage it

Reframing conflict is a good first step, but it’s not enough.  Conflict will always come with a certain level of discomfort, and people need to be nudged outside of their comfort zone.

So how do you do that?  Encourage conflict.  Yup, that’s right.  When you’re in a team meeting, and you suspect that people are holding back, ask them to share their perspective.  By giving people full permission to be candid in the meeting, you will reduce the amount of water cooler talk, and engage with conflict in a much healthier, productive way.

3.  Set agreements around it

While avoiding conflict entirely isn’t healthy, neither is explosive, ill-willed conflict.  To help your team engage with conflict in a healthy, productive way, set team agreements or ground rules around conflict.

Get your team together, and begin a conversation about how you want to engage with conflict.  You may consider the importance of treating each other with respect, listening (really listening) when someone is voicing their opinion, and searching for common ground.  You may also want to acknowledge that at times a conflict may get heated, people may say things out of reaction, and discuss how you want to recover from those situations.

At the end of the conversation, set 3-5 core agreements that provide ground rules for how your team will engage with conflict.  Record them on a flip chart, ask for everyone to commit to each one with a show of hands, and keep the paper visible in your regular meeting room.

Now, go forth, and create conflict (the healthy, productive kind of course)!