3 ways to have a better relationship with conflict

I never had a good relationship with conflict. Whenever I would think about it I would go into a panic. I would be all primitive and go into that fight or flight state, which isn't uncommon. However, this wasn't enabling me to deal with potentially challenging situations. 


When we grow, we grow because we are challenged, we step outside our areas of comfort and operate in our 'stretch zones'. It isn't meant to be easy, because if it was everyone would be doing it, the areas of comfort are exactly that because it comes more naturally to you. It isn't to say you have to operate outside the area of comfort all the time, because let's be honest that would be tiring, but to progress you will need to. 

To go through conflict means to have your views challenged, to be open to new learnings, to find the best way forward. 

To progress I knew I had to deal with potential conflict, even though I love harmony, I couldn't see beyond the conflict. It was like some big nasty behemoth staring back at me - I didn't fancy my chances. 

Growing up, I was one of seven, and being the eldest felt I have a level of responsibility, but also felt I had to be right, and I should know what to do. As you can expect there were many arguments, and I would look to stay involved in it, just to 'win'. I only ever saw arguments as either winning or losing - I would even continue arguing when I knew I was wrong, because I wanted the other person to admit defeat. How wrong was I? 

On reflection, I was not particularly fond of my approach and also knew that approach wouldn't gain trust with others and if anything, would alienate them along the way (not very good for leadership). I ended up going to the opposite end of the spectrum and agreeing with pretty much everything the other person would say (also not particularly helpful).

The other trouble I had with conflict was I would immediately jump to the endpoint, which in my mind was a physical confrontation. I never took into account the journey or discussion it would take to get there, but actually assumed it would end there. 

There were three areas which have really helped me, that I would like to share with you. 

1. Shifting perspective

It wouldn't be a surprise from the outside looking in why my relationship wasn't particularly healthy with conflict. I am not alone, conflict isn't something people would go looking for, but I would see others in business that would deal with it really well. Due to being a coach I lead with curiosity, so was curious what made them deal with conflict so well. 

I was surprised when I was told that they didn't like conflict at all, but they just had to deal with it. Some even stated they actually hated it. I had made an assumption that they enjoyed it or were comfortable with it because they deal with it so well. This caused me to challenge my beliefs, and assumptions and understand conflict and learn about ways I could get conflict to be more congruent with my values. 

As mentioned, I only saw conflict as being a winner or a loser, which doesn't serve well when you're actually trying to get others on side. I am also reminded of Dale Carnegie writing in his book 'the only argument you'll ever win is the one you don't have'. This has stayed with me from the moment I read it. 

I looked at my driving values, and one jumped out which I had never looked at before with conflict and that was growth

I am not sure why I never looked at it that way, but when I did it became obvious. Whenever we grow we come across resistance. That conflict could be internal or external with others. If we (whether that is us as individuals, a team, and organisation) want to grow there will be many conflicts along the way and each conflict will provide a challenge, new learning opportunities and allow us to develop and learn forward. 

Illustration of two people at table with laptopsTo grow muscle they have to be put under stress, to break them down so they rebuild stronger. 

To develop resilience we experience adversity, to be put under pressure, so next time we are better equipped to deal with it. 

To go through conflict means to have your views challenged, to be open to new learnings, to find the best way forward. 

2. Understanding the type of conflict

You only need to browse through social media, to see the amount of conflict that is out there, however, the majority of that is not healthy. Many are just attacks on others at a personal level. 

Let's break conflict down into two areas, something I never did. 

On one hand, and this hand is the only area I only ever looked at, you have the conflict where it is personal. If one party isn't getting what they desire, they attack the other person. Making belittling comments, personal attacks. This is not the area for focus. If someone is doing this, the best thing to do is to walk away, rather than throw petrol on top of the fire, let it burn itself out. 

On the other, there is a healthier side. The side where conflict is required for growth to succeed. This is where we argue over the 'how'. 

Firstly, we need to agree on where we are heading. If you cannot agree here, then there is plenty of scope for unhealthy conflict. The purpose needs to be clearly defined - what is the reason we are doing this? 

When I get into a discussion with someone, my first step is to go to the endpoint to ensure clarity and alignment. Before we have this conversation are we both on the same track and heading in the right direction. If yes, then let's get growing... 

There isn't a right or wrong to these discussions, there are just different points of view.

Each view broadens our sight, a bit like removing the picture from the frame and seeing is as a panoramic picture, immersing yourself more and more each time. 

The key is to stay focused on the task, and not allow the relationship to become the source of the conflict. The moment the relationship is the focus, call it out, defuse the situation and agree when all parties are ready to go again. 

The purpose of the conflict is to find the best route to take. 

3. Lead with curiosity

When we get into conflict, as I mentioned above it can trigger that fight or flight response. We'll either build ourselves a great defence and not let anyone in, repelling attack after attack, or we come armed ready to try and knock the doors down. 

Neither is a particularly helpful approach. Leave your defences and your weapons at the door. This is about growing.

If you're continually attacking, you won't listen, be self-aware or accept any shortcomings

If you're defending, you're not allowing anything new to enter your world, you're shutting down. 

Instead, know the key points you want to make, but you'll only need your top three points. Understand the points you agree on with the other party, and highlight them.

The rest can be questions. Asking them about:

  • What they agree on?
  • What do they disagree on?
  • Be curious rather than judging or leading.

Conflict doesn't have to be a fight but to grow it is part of the process. Keep the relationship strong, and find the best way forward. 

Life Coach Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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