Hands up who likes conflict?

Ben Freedman


November 2020

You don’t? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, most people say they avoid it like the plague – and it’s easy to see why.

Conflict can unleash powerful, ugly emotions – and actions – that cause real damage between people, so we think it’s best kept in its box. Ideally under lock and key.

But in saying we want to avoid conflict, is it actually confrontation we want to swerve? Because it's the direct challenge of confronting another person who's saying or doing something we don’t like that often triggers our strongest and primal fight/flight/freeze emotions.

In turning it around, however, if we don’t confront that person, what happens then? Where do the emotions you feel about it go?

The cost of avoidance

Here's a simple exercise. Think about a conflict with someone who you now regret you didn’t properly confront. What was the effect of that avoidance on you, on others and on the conflict itself?

In all likelihood, everything turned inwards and came out again in some other way – in complaining to others, for example, or not giving 100% to a client. Or not sleeping. Or even, perhaps, in quitting the job you loved.

Take a moment to write down how much this avoidance cost you in terms of pain, energy, time – and hard cash.

Now think about a conflict with someone who you decided to face up to. Again, what was the effect of that on you, on others and on the conflict itself? And how much did this cost you in the same terms – pain, energy, time and hard cash?

And now compare the two outcomes. Which looks preferable?

The bottom line is that while confrontation may be avoidable the conflict itself isn’t. If something you care about is being threatened or denied the effects of that must be felt by you, one way or another, until the situation is resolved.

No hiding place

In short, there’s no hiding from conflict – which means it has to be addressed. Failure to do so corrodes morale, energy and results – in you and others – and ultimately can even destroy the most noble of enterprises.

Dealing with conflict often needs a dollop of personal courage – but there are Creative Conversation skills that anyone can learn to help develop that courage.  And with the right communication habits embedded in your organisation – so that, for example, challenging with empathy (rather than simply confronting) becomes part and parcel of the culture – more often than not you’ll find that conflict actually brings benefit in terms of greater clarity and growth.

Alongside the many hidden costs of poor communication and misunderstanding, lots of research shows the other side of the coin – that good relationships, based on good communication, make us happier and more productive.

All it takes is a little investment.

And making friends with conflict is perhaps the best ROI you will ever achieve.

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