Recurring conflict doesn’t automatically signal that a personal or professional relationship is in trouble. Teams, couples, and families that experience conflict can develop a figurative “stress wood” that makes for resilient relationships.
The trees in Biosphere 2 were having a problem. Initially, they’d look healthy and grow rapidly, more rapidly than trees in the “outside world.”
They had optimal growing conditions, too — the right temperature, the right amount of light and water, and fertile soil.
But the trees didn’t thrive for long. Instead, they were collapsing and dying.
What the heck was going on?
In the late 1980s, scientists and philanthropists joined forces to build Biosphere 2, a set of seven fully closed biome structures in Arizona. It featured a rainforest, an ocean with coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, an agricultural area, and living and work spaces for humans to live without exiting the Biosphere for two years. It remains the largest closed ecological system ever built by humans and was intended to research and demonstrate the viability of a closed system to support and maintain life in outer space.
Biosphere 2 ran two experiments in the 1990s, both of which ran into significant problems including low oxygen, dwindling food supply, animal and plant die-offs, and plenty of conflict between the residents and between the scientists and the funders.
And now here were the collapsing trees.
It turns out that growing a healthy, resilient tree requires an additional ingredient: Stress.
And for trees, wind equals stress. When buffeted by the wind, trees grow concentrations of cells that resist the bending caused by wind. These concentrations of cells, known as “stress wood” or reaction wood, enable the tree to stand strong.
The windless Biosphere 2 grew trees that didn’t develop enough stress wood to stay standing. The protected bubble in which they grew was the very thing that caused their downfall.
The stress wood of resilient relationships
Stress wood is a useful concept for considering conflict in our personal and professional relationships. It helps us reframe recurring conflict from primarily “bad” to “strengthening.”
When organizational teams try to avoid conflict in the name of team harmony, the result can be poor decision-making, groupthink, pent-up frustration, bigger conflict down the road, and working relationships that can’t weather the kind of robust debate that sparks creative problem-solving.
When parents avoid disagreeing in front of their child or routinely break up sibling arguments, the result can be children who are less creative. Parents who prevent their child from expressing anger risk raising children with under-developed coping and self-management skills.
Couples that avoid conflict in the name of preventing damage to the relationship can actually end up…damaging the relationship. Healthy relationships benefit from conflict.
Withstanding the big storms
Stress wood in trees grows in response to wind. Some wind is gentle and frequent. Some wind is gusty and strong. And while tornado and hurricane-force wind is a threat to all trees in its path, strong trees have a better chance of surviving periodic big storms.
Constructive conflict habits include habits like these:
- Collaborating and compromising.
- Expressing emotions.
- Showing empathy.
- Tolerating (or even promoting) dissent.
- Reaching out to repair after arguments.
Persistent destructive or toxic conflict habits are akin to the hurricane-force wind that will snap even a very healthy tree — they damage relationships. Destructive conflict habits include:
- Chronic stone-walling.
- Reflexive defensiveness.
- Conflict avoidance or prolonged withdrawal after conflict.
- Personal (ad hominem) attacks.
- Contempt and frequent criticism.
This is not to say that a periodic damaging argument means the relationship is in trouble. It’s about the balance between constructive and destructive conflict.
Personal and professional relationships that have developed relational stress wood can survive the occasional destructive storm. In other words, we shouldn’t strive to prevent conflict — we should strive to view conflict as the chance to build resilience, and minimize destructive conflict by the way we engage others when we disagree.