I don’t like the man. I must get to know him better. – Abraham Lincoln
An online search for the definition of conflict quickly produces negative phrases and words: a serious disagreement or argument, a fight, battle, or war. I’d like to offer a different definition:
Conflict is the time and space where differences meet.
Therefore, in essence:
Conflict is inherently neutral.
In this sense, differences (conflicts) are simply differences. Different ideas, values, interests, perceptions, beliefs, identities, personalities, differences in physical appearance – each of these is in and of itself inherently neutral.
The negative connotations of conflict don’t derive from the existence of differences. Instead, they come from the way we interpret and react to differences. Instinctively, we equate differences with the possibility of threat. This mechanism serves us well – except when it doesn’t.
When we assume differences are threatening, our reactions are limited.
Anger is the competitive (fight) reaction to differences. Avoidance is the flight reaction. Freeze is the deer-in-the-headlights reaction. While each of these reactions may be appropriate depending on the specific situation, they are limited nonetheless.
If, instead, we view differences as nothing more than the time and space where differences meet, we open the door to another reaction:
Curiosity involves the willingness to question our assumptions, and sometimes, our long-held beliefs. In other words, curiosity involves the courage to be vulnerable – which in turn requires the humility to acknowledge our ignorance: we do not, and cannot, know everything. Curiosity extends our capacity for compassion and empathy.
The workplace provides a unique setting for differences. Differences in the workplace, can range from those that seem fairly innocuous to those that appear to pose a potential threat to our emotional well-being and economic survival. How do we approach the latter? Do we fight, flee, or freeze? Or, do we become curious?
Consider an example: You feel confident that you have thoroughly and accurately researched and analyzed data for a project. You meet with your supervisor, excited to share the results. Your supervisor appears to be preoccupied and skeptical of your work.
Is your assumption accurate?
What does your supervisor’s reaction actually mean?
Do you become angry (challenge your supervisor’s response: “I put a ton of effort into this project and you act like you don’t care and that you doubt my abilities!” or talk negatively to co-workers about your supervisor)?
Or do you become fearful (avoid your supervisor; beat yourself up and lose self-confidence)?
Most importantly, what is the impact of either of these reactions?
Now, what if, instead, you see the situation through a lens of curiosity?
Rather than acting on your assumption regarding your supervisor’s reaction, you ask a question.
“I’d like to make sure I’m understanding. Will you share your thoughts?”
When you take this approach, you are demonstrating the courage to authentically inquire about something you may not understand. There is vulnerability in acknowledging ignorance. Yet, if you don’t take this risk, you are taking a greater risk. You’re acting on what may be an inaccurate assumption – and with that comes the detrimental impact it can have on your relationship with your supervisor.
Approaching differences with a sense of curiosity opens a door to information necessary to respond appropriately. Of course, how we ask a question is critical. We must suspend our assumptions, conclusions, and judgments about the other person and the situation. Our question must come from a place of genuine curiosity and for the sake of improved communication and understanding.
When I’m asked to address conflict between individuals and teams in the workplace, the most common situation involves inaccurate assumptions and a lack of effective communication. Day-to-day workplace operations and the stress of work often do not afford the type of setting or time needed to ask the questions that lead to better communication. Additionally, those involved may not feel safe enough to ask the important questions that need to be asked. These are issues that must be addressed in all healthy and respectful workplaces.
Debra Healy, MS is an organizational conflict consultant, mediator, facilitator, conflict coach, and conflict management trainer dedicated to creating and sustaining respectful workplaces. Managing interpersonal and intra-organizational conflict is a critical component of the well-being, growth, and success of any organized group of individuals. For additional information, please visit Debra’s website: “agree2agree – Healy Conflict Management Services” at www.healycms.com
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