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The Opportunity of Conflict

By Julie Cohen

You've been working very hard on a new project. You're counting on everyone to get their pieces in, on time, and to standard. However, you dread getting John's project. Every time you receive something from him, it's laden with typos, it doesn't make a lot of sense, and you have to do it yourself. You don't want to hurt his feelings, but you'd rather not expect anything of him than receive sub-par materials.

Does this sound like you? Everyday we encounter conflict. We spend so much time avoiding conflict, but what would happen if we embraced it?

We avoid many different things. For example, we avoid:

  • Sharing a new idea that differs from all the others.
  • Speaking up when we believe a business decision is unwise, ineffective, or unethical.
  • Telling someone they're not performing some or all of their job responsibilities.
  • Telling a colleague you are uncomfortable with their gossip.
  • Requesting that your boss assign you to a different project that better utilizes your skills and talents.

This list is endless! Human relationships, no matter their nature, all have conflict and some conflict is more painful than others. So, what are some of the reasons we avoid conflict?

  • We don't want to be seen as a "trouble-maker."
  • We don't want to be considered a "bad" team player.
  • We're concerned our idea is not good enough.
  • We believe it's easier to fix a problem ourselves.
  • We don't want someone to be angry with us.
  • We're protecting someone else's ego.
  • We're afraid we'll get fired, laughed at or required to take on more work.
  • And more!

Although running away from conflict may be first instinct, it can be more beneficial to meet it head-on. For example, taking a different approach to conflict will enhance your creativity and leadership skills, and will also expedite action and results. You will feel better about your professional role and see greater accomplishments. Here are several areas in which you can reconsider the role of conflict and apply different approaches to it.

Conflict for Action

Scenario: A stalled team is required to provide a critical marketing strategy to the corporate executive team. The team has divided in to two factions with divergent approaches to the problem. Neither side will compromise.

Opportunity: With compromise seeming impossible, the first step towards action will be listening. In order to see beyond our own ideas, we must really hear the other possibilities; you need to be able to take a "baby step." This can only begin after understanding the others perspective, strategy and concepts. This activity should take the form of actually stating the conflicting ideas and the beliefs and proposed benefits behind them. As you try on the others ideas, especially with a sense of openness, there is a likelihood of finding commonalities and even value from initially opposing ideas.

If you reframe the impasse as just another challenge to get through, action will happen as perceptions and priorities change. Moving from a win/lose to a win/win mentality will also expedite the action.

Conflict for Results
Scenario: You are a consultant about to present a solution to a client for redesigning a major business process. Less than two days before the presentation, the client provides new information that redefines the problem and thus the solution you and your team have developed over the past two months.

Opportunity: In this situation, a complete overhaul is required within a very tight timeframe. The wrench in the defined plan requires thinking differently and providing results quickly. This conflict requires the team to approach how they work in a new way. There will not be time for stalling, lack of focus or self-doubt. Speed, completion and results are the residual benefit of this conflict.

Conflict for Creativity
Scenario: You are a web designer and were just told your latest project was boring, unoriginal and lacking vision. You thought it was some of your best work. There is no way you can create something else.

Opportunity: This conflict could lead the designer down a path of stagnation, dismay and apathy. In order to move forward after such a personal blow, the designer must see this as a chance to go beyond his comfort zone.

He will be required to completely reevaluate his creativity and professional approach. Instead of designing how he always has, he will need to birth new ideas. The initial discomfort faced becomes a catalyst for greater creativity.

Conflict for Professional Growth
Scenario: You have prepared performance reviews and need to deliver one that is less than satisfactory. As you sit down with this direct report, you know she will be upset as well as very disagreeable with your perspective.

Opportunity: Giving or receiving constructive or negative input is one of the most dreaded professional experiences. For both parties involved it can be uncomfortable, anxiety producing and often deferred. The opportunity arises in this situation when the supervisor and the direct report view this process as development not debilitation.

The supervisor needs to frame the feedback in a direct as well as supportive way offering honesty, compassion and possibilities for change and improvement. The direct report will be best served by listening to the feedback with curiosity and without defensiveness. Taking a collaborative approach of support and problem solving will enhance this challenging situation.

Conflict for Leadership
Scenario: As Director of a division of your company, you must decide where funds will be invested in developing new products. You've gathered data and opinions from all constituents and need to make the difficult decision on what two products will come to market over the next few years. Many will be disappointed.

Opportunity: Although most people enjoy being liked, it is not required and can even limit the effectiveness of a leader. Choosing the direction of a team, department or an entire organization can have far-reaching impact. Getting through this major decision requires the leader to look beyond individuals (after thoroughly considering their input) and make the decision that best aligns with the organization's priorities, mission and values. This requires the leader to take a stand on what he believes is right for the overall health of the organization. Implementing the organizational vision in the midst of the daily operational challenges stretches the leader and enhances his/her impact.

When you look at conflict through a perspective of opportunity, you will find numerous rewards. Some of the positive outcomes of embracing conflict can be: collaboration, compromise, stretch, speed, and creativity. Throughout all stages of professional development, conflict will always be present. Remembering these scenarios, and the various ways to approach and reframe conflict, can enable you to advance through these challenges instead of being limited by them.

Julie Cohen, PCC, is a Career Coach. She helps her clients clarify and achieve their professional and personal goals including greater career satisfaction, life balance, leadership development and personal growth. For questions, comments or to discuss this article, Julie can be reached by visiting Julie Cohen Coaching.
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