A discussion I had at a recent company seminar, captured the complicated relationship many of us have with conflict. One of my colleagues spoke of a challenging position in the middle of opposing stakeholders, some of whom seemed to take delight in conflict for conflict’s sake. My colleague confessed that he often waited (in his view) a little too long to put issues on the table, as he dreaded fuelling conflicts further. He wanted to have the answer figured out before creating the debate. Another colleague interjected, saying all his time in Asia had made him especially conflict averse, and felt he needed to become a bit more rude by Asian standards, to engage locals in a productive dialogue about setting the right sales targets. Another still spoke of the stress and discomfort conflict added to work, and how it had a tendency to preoccupy his mind, even when off duty.

On the other hand, conflicts can be interesting in that they can force different points of view and perspectives on an issue to be shared more systematically through the heat of the debate, than what otherwise would happen. My colleague challenged the notion, in that to him conflicts were stupid, that they were the inability to discuss and debate turned into an argument, where the objective had become to win, rather than appreciate the value of the others points of view. I tend to agree. Conflict easily runs amok, and requires experience to keep on track, steering them to be a negotiation rather than a fight.

The value adding piece is around the opposing views, but the challenge is to keep the temperature of the exchange down, to focus on exploring the trade-offs rather than who is winning and who might be losing. For me, the trick is about trying to avoid advocating, but instead exploring issues through inquiry – asking questions and seeking answers from everyone around the table, rather than turning up and thinking there is only one answer: yours.

I’m not sure it is always possible to avoid emotions running high, we all seem to have triggers that set us off, but the essence seems to be in that moment between stimulus and response, to hold off responding long enough not to escalate things further. Instead, recognise the other person’s view, remember the value is in the opposing views and respond thoughtfully based on the value you can add to the conversation, rather than with the objective to win.

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