Make difficult conversations more productive and buffer vital relationships from the negative effects of conflict
The way we disagree has an impact on the quality of our work, the resilience of our relationships, and our ability to influence others.
We can approach differences and disagreements in ways that buffer our most important personal and professional relationships from the negative effects of conflict. We can disagree in ways that spark collaboration and better decisions instead of destructive conflict and tension.
To disagree better, we can respond to conflict differently and we can think about conflict (and those we disagree with) differently. I explore these ideas and the following themes extensively in my work and writing.
First, some helpful ways to think about conflict
Our story, not the story
When we get into a conflict with someone, it’s natural to replay our experience of the conflict, both in our minds and as we tell others about it. Over time, this replay can begin to feel like The Truth About What Happened. But it isn’t. It’s something we constructed in our minds. We built it based on what stood out to us, who we are, what we believe, what we value and de-value. To disagree better, we need to doubt our own conflict story and create a new one.
Buffering, not preventing
Robust disagreement is a hallmark of creative, effective workplace teams. Couples can have big fights and frequent conflict yet still have healthy, fulfilling, and lasting relationships. It’s not discord itself that determines if the relationship survives and thrives — it’s what we do when we disagree.
A messenger, not a pathology
Conflict is not an inability to get along or be a team player. Anger is not a personality flaw. Conflict and anger are messengers. They are trying tell us something and they’ll escalate until we listen. When we learn to notice the signal and translate the message — theirs or our own — we disagree better.
An equal human, not a difficult one
Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler reminds us, “You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.” To disagree better, we have to resist the superficial, too-easy diagnosis, “difficult person,” and diligently look for the equal human, flawed and perfect, just like us.
The “between,” not only agreements
In ongoing personal and business relationships, agreements matter, yet they’re best seen as way stations on our way to taking care of “the between,” the air between us and them. It’s the between that will sustain the relationship and set the stage for what happens in future disagreement and conflict.
Next, some helpful ways to respond to conflict
When we think differently about the nature of conflict and about those with whom we disagree, some of our responses change too. Frame of mind influences behavior.
We can also borrow habits and tools from the toolboxes of conflict resolution experts — mediators, negotiators, and executive coaches who do this work every day.
I’ve put together a few favorites from my own toolbox, road-tested over 20 years in the field to help people disagree better:
© 2021 Tammy Lenski. All rights reserved.