8 Steps for Transforming Conflict into Collaboration

Why is conflict so hard for us, why IS it such a big deal?  We mostly agree it is part of life, but why do we layer it with such avoidance, such drama?

A big reason we make conflict so hard is that we have it when shouldn’t, and we don’t have it when we should! Why, oh why, do we so readily slide into conflict with our in-laws, but are loathe to raise conflict with our teenaged children when we suspect them of something dangerous, ill-willed or premature?

It is easier to engage in conflict with people and issues that we can readily hold at arm’s length, and harder with the people closest and most important to us.  While this may be true, it is no excuse to avoid getting in there and working things through, however awkward and awful it feels, with the people we love and the concerns most important to us.

And that’s the easy part to fix!

Our relationship with conflict gets more complicated as we delve into the individual, inconsistent, unpredictable, and culturally laden patterns about how we engage conflict. Some of these are hard-wired, some are environmental, others are situations and some are just force of habit.

Women and men have different neurophysiological patterns of conflict engagement, and resolution- that’s worth at least a million arguments alone!  On top of that, how we were raised, early life messages about anger, about expressing emotion and how we developed our early self-concept, most importantly, how we interacted with or siblings!

Now add our situational patterns of conflict: big family events (e.g., weddings, funerals and holidays), when we’re tired, hungry, feeling unappreciated, just lost a client or gained 5 pounds, it impacts how, when and why we engage in conflict!

So, we agree, conflict is a complex and multi-faceted thing.  Perhaps that answers the initial question about why we layer so much onto it!

If we also agree that we have 100% control over how we engage conflict, then we are capable of using it as a tool for improvement, opportunity- even collaboration!

We all know of times when we fully engaged in a conflict and came out in a more positive place than we could ever have landed without it.  When conflict led to more creative results- or a breakthrough that literally blew out of all of the committed, focused energy and passion!  What have we missed, at work, and at home by avoiding conflict?

8 Steps for Transforming Conflict into Collaboration

1.   Move quickly into conflict.

Don’t let it fester, then blow your stack.  This invariably leads to bells you cannot un-ring, words you cannot take back.

2.  Adopt a position of extreme listening.

Hearing on as many levels as you can, and making sure you are fundamentally clear on the other person’s position is essential. Slow down and check, ‘this is what I am hearing you say.’

3.  Stay committed to a shared vision or outcome.

Even when you feel irritated, and want to stomp your feet and yell “objection!” What’s the anticipated outcome? What shared investment, hope or aspiration do you both have?

4.   Be relentlessly positive!

It is difficult to engage in ugly conflict with Mary Poppins. Be positive, if nothing else, it will unlock the other person’s conflict patterns, and require them to experiment with new ways of interacting with you.

5.  Use your funny!  

We don’t think of using humor in conflict, because we are often too mad to find our funny.  But, it’s there.  Fund your funny and use it to disarm conflict patterns for both of you!

6.  Breathe! Move! Walk around!

Sometimes physical movement helps us feel ‘unstuck’ from our position, from our worries or fears- and sometimes it helps us see a new perspective- to literally ‘move forward.’

7.  Moderate your talker.

In the midst of conflict is not a good time to yammer on just to hear yourself talk.  In fact, less is more.  If your are both listening more than talking, there’s a good chance the outcome will be a positive one, at least we know the reverse is true!

8.  Celebrate your success!

When you stay with a conflict through to its end, and find yourselves in a better place, celebrate!  Talk about what being in the conflict was like, and how you might engage in it differently next time. Appreciate the willingness to engage and the strengthening of partnership that results.

Lean into conflict, make it your friend, your ally. Let it teach you that true collaboration is borne of hard work, some sweat and the willingness to BE present and engaged with others in real and meaningful ways.  Without conflict, that kind of meaning can be elusive, momentary.