The difference between creative and destructive conflict? A single word.

Eddy Canfor-Dumas

22

December 2020

I had an aha-moment the other day, when a jigsaw piece I’d been turning round and around for ages in my mind finally became recognisable and I was able to snap it into place in the puzzle.

It was triggered by Patrick Lencioni’s observation that, contrary to what one might expect, a team that lacks mutual trust often seems to lack conflict too. It has the appearance of harmony but only because everyone is tiptoeing around the contentious stuff, afraid that speaking up will cause harm - to individuals and/or the team.

In other words, says Lencioni, you need trust to be able to engage safely in the necessary conflict that comes with the clash of ideas and the desire to forge the best possible decision on any specific issue.

So what was my revelation? It was a simple equation:

  • Conflict + trust = growth
  • Conflict – trust = decline

As I pondered on whether or not this was valid - and perhaps it’s obvious and I’m just a very slow learner - I thought about two significant personal relationships I’ve had.

Two relationships

One of them lasted for some time and was, I thought, pretty hunky-dory. We never rowed or even argued. Until one day my partner suddenly said all of the things she’d kept buttoned up over the years - mainly about my shortcomings. Who knew? Not me, obviously - and too late, because the relationship didn’t last long after that.

The next significant relationship I had was totally different. My new girlfriend was very forthright. There was no way I could be in any doubt about what she thought of anything – including me.

And one afternoon we had a humdinger of a row – I forget about what.

At its climax I delivered (what I thought was) a stinging riposte to something she’d said, then turned abruptly on my heel and stomped out of the room. But outside I remember thinking - with surprise - ‘I’m enjoying this’. So I swivelled through 180° and marched back into the room to declare ‘And another thing…’.

What was amazing, to me, was what happened next. Nothing. That is, nothing bad. The issue was addressed, clarified with some bracing (gulp) mutual honesty, then sorted in one way or another and we moved on.

In short, my new girlfriend had taught me how to have a bloody good row – safely.

And I say safely because, dear reader, I married her. And 34 years later we’re still together, with two adult children, one of whom is soon herself to be married.

A stronger connection

Conflict plus trust equals construction, progress, growth. And there have definitely been a fair few conflicts between us in all those years – of course. But they’ve been fought on a foundation of trust. And respect. And love. And so we've continued year after year, fighting and making up, and always somehow resolving our differences.

So the real challenge, it seems, is not actually conflict but trust - and how to build it in personal relationships, at work and in society as a whole. It can be a huge task but, as we explain in our book and teach on our courses, it’s both possible and hugely worthwhile.

Because once there is trust, even the fiercest of fights can lead to an even stronger connection, an even deeper bond.

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