Learning From Conflicts

I was eating cereal and reading Barron’s on a recent Sunday morning when my wife gave me the idea for this post. She was talking to my sister-in-law, who was also in the kitchen, about how our two daughters had been playing that weekend. Inevitably, our two daughters found small things to fight about over the weekend they spent together. My wife commented, “it is good for them to have conflicts because that is how they learn.” 

What immediately jumped to mind was what I said next. “If it is good for them to learn from conflicts, why do adults tend to spend their lives running from them?” 

Obviously, my statement is an over generalization as not every adult runs from conflict, but, my experience suggests that the vast majority of people do, especially in the workplace.

I lead a business with my two sisters and the three of us have equal positions in the company. Confronting them on something can be extremely difficult. I value the relationships I have with them outside work, so it can be tempting to not address an issue because I wrongly assume “conflict” will mean a disruption to our relationship —more on this below. Before moving on, however, it is important to clarify that my sisters and I do not even have major issues, just the ones all human beings have inside a workplace. Still, even issues that are relatively “minor” can be hard to confront.

I imagine my sisters rolling their eyes at the last paragraph because they have always been willing to listen to feedback. Here within lies the rub. The rub is the reality that the conflict, and especially the potential for major relationship disruption, is much bigger in one’s mind than it is in reality. Our mind tends to imagine the big blowup fight when we think of conflict. The reality, most of the time, is that nothing of the sort happens. 

If anything, what tends to happen is the resolution of conflict. 

For me, my subconscious fears some kind of fight depicted between family members in pop culture, perhaps a shouting match at a Thanksgiving dinner or some other family event. Thankfully, our holiday dinners are much more fun than fight! But, my fear can make me believe that I won’t get “seconds” if I have certain conversations at work. Of course, this is not true, and I have to continually remind myself that it is not. I also need to remind myself to do what I need to do, which is have the conversation. 

Remember, if a little conflict is good for two playmates, it is also good for us adults. 

Having conflict is obviously not easy. To that end, my sisters and I have spent considerable time working on how to have healthy conflict. For the last several years we have worked with a leadership coach who facilitates a quarterly meeting between the three of us. This forum gives us time and space to talk about our working relationships, the business, and just about everything else. While not every meeting revolves around having a “conflict conversation,” the time and space are there to do so if need be. You might not work with your siblings, but you do work closely with someone, or some group. Perhaps, you need to establish a time and place to regularly talk with them? If you are intentional, this time could turn into the “safe place” to bring up a potentially contentious issue. 

There is also a lot of discipline that needs to go into how the conflict conversation is handled when it happens. My encouragement on that end is to read something from an expert. Two books that aided me were, Difficult Conversations, and Crucial Conversations. I would strongly recommend leaders read at least one of these books so that they approach these hard conversations from a place of discipline and not recklessness. 

Conflict is not fun, but it is necessary. We learn about ourselves and others when we navigate conflict. Done right, both parties leave closer than before. Looking back on the weekend with our adorable niece, there were moments when she, and our daughter, fought about the silliest problems. That said, they learned how to love one another, live together, and even lead themselves, every time they did. 

We would be wise to follow their lead. 

If all else fails, like them, let’s look into the eyes of those we are in conflict with. Let’s take a deep breath, and say we are sorry. 

If it is not too weird, throw in a hug for good measure. 

Be kind and considerate. Relational conflict doesn’t have to be the behemoth your mind might imagine it to be.