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3 steps through conflict to collaboration

There may be no quick fix to conflict, but these steps can push you in the right direction


By Teri Hill, C1 Contributor

Conflict is sometimes an uncomfortable means to a valuable end.

How many people love conflict in their relationships? Crickets, right? Pure silence (or an enthusiastic thumbs up from a few tough souls who once excelled on the high school debate team).

Most people avoid conflict or seek to quash it, move past it quickly or even falsely agree with what is being said just to rid the air of the stench of disharmony. Yet embracing conflict and debate is a foundational element in building healthy leadership teams, strong relationships and creative collaboration.

Why must conflict precede creative collaboration? The essence of creative collaboration is the combining of ideas, viewpoints, and opinions; the more diverse the input, the richer the outcome.

Yet diversity of thought is a breeding ground for difference of opinion, which often leads to conflict. Embracing and exploring the conflict solicits more creative thought and even richer ideas. Avoiding the conflict or debate stops the flow of ideas, leaving some people feeling shut down and hesitant to support ideas they have not gotten to weigh in on.

Below are three steps that set the stage to embrace and facilitate a team through the valley of conflict to the green pastures of creative collaboration. Recognize that there is no quick fix to move from conflict avoidance or artificial harmony to constructive conflict and creative collaboration. The transition takes time. Mastery is in consistent and persistent movement toward the goal. Remember that practicing these three steps in business or in life not only enhances your ability to embrace conflict but also results in inspiring your team to be stronger leaders.

Step 1: Establish a clear, inspiring goal for the discussion

The often cited quote from Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat summarizes this principle well: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” So, of course, we would all prefer to take the cozy road of least resistance. People are more willing to go through the pain and discomfort of a tough conversation if they can clearly see a golden horizon on the other side.

Be crystal clear on why swimming through the freezing water of conflict is good. I don’t mean why in general, although embracing conflict is a key ingredient in leadership team functioning. What I do mean is have clarity on what you hope to accomplish in exploring tough topics, controversial issues or sensitive subjects. Help the group see the silver lining both for them personally as well as for the team, company, group or agency:

“At the end of the discussion we will all be crystal clear and in agreement on each person’s role in launching the new product. We can all go off knowing exactly how to win in this endeavor.”

“After getting all thoughts, ideas, and disagreements on the table, we will not only get to exercise our creative prowess, but will also come to a decision around strategy, hiring process, development timelines, etc., etc. etc.”

“Through this creative sharing of ideas we will be better able to find a solution to serve more people with our limited resources.”

Step 2: Suspend defensiveness, excuses, finger pointing, blaming and avoidance

Use this as a regular practice and you will experience an abundance of success, joy and peace while fostering a culture of accountability and empowerment. Choosing to suspend defensiveness is one of the greatest changes my clients face. We are neurologically wired to react and defend, yet as 21st century knowledge workers, we also have the power of self-awareness, self-management, and choice.

You will continue to feel the impulse to defend, resort to blaming others for the pain or mistakes, want to point fingers at the idiot or idiots who screwed up, or make excuses for why things fell apart. Yet you and your team members have the power to choose to suspend your impulses, hold back to reset your agitation, and realize the benefit of non-judgmental dialogue on issues. It comes down to impulse control and conscious choice to own your part in the situation so that together the team can discuss and solve the issues.

Remember, with most hard-wired neurological impulses comes the reaction of fight or flight. Blaming and finger pointing is the fight reaction, while excuses and avoiding the issues comprise the flight reaction. Both of these natural tendencies greatly diminish you and your team’s ability to work through issues, confront conflict, and move to creative collaboration.

Step 3: Value or make room for the active collection of ideas and opinions

Step 3, the active collection and valuing of ideas and input, completes our trifecta of embracing conflict. Let’s break this down.

First, you and your team must agree to value and respect slowing down a discussion and decision long enough to fully gather ideas and input. In the urgent pace of the world today, this is much more challenging than it may seem. We all must suspend our tendency to quickly evaluate input and come to a decision.

Instead, allow time to openly brainstorm options and opposition to options. Use questions to solicit more input and encourage debate. For example, “What else might happen if we do this?” “What is the downside or risk of this course of action?” “What is missing in our process: the skill set of our people, the full knowledge or understanding of the issues or utilization of our resources that must be overcome?”

Second, engage each member of the team in the gathering of ideas. I often ask participants to write down three questions, arguments, barriers, or other options and then solicit input in a round robin fashion. Engage some method that allows each team member to quietly think before discussing or you will shut out the input of those folks who are conflict averse or need more time to process their thoughts.

Remember that practicing these three steps in business or in life not only enhances your ability to embrace conflict but also results in inspiring your team to be stronger leaders.

In summary, choose today to commit to creative collaboration in conversation. Choose today to fully engage your valuable team members in thoroughly discussing ideas, embracing potential conflict, and moving toward greater alignment. 

Teri Hill, M.Ed. president of T.H.Enterprise, has been speaking, consulting, and coaching for over 25 years.   She has led in the facilitation of global executive education for Fortune 50 companies, and trained and coached hundreds of leaders, entrepreneurs, and rising stars.  A former executive, Teri understands the challenges in hiring, retaining, and leading people. She has a BA in Psychology and Masters from the University of Texas in Organizational Development & Leadership. Visit her website at www.terihill.com

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