The value of conflict

Have you ever found yourself thinking “If they would just listen to me, we could finally make some progress!” You begin to judge others as difficult, maybe even incompetent. You feel self-righteous, misunderstood, unappreciated, frustrated, or worse, ignored. Your motive shifts from wanting to solve the problem, to wanting to prove you are right, and of course, others wrong.

You might raise your voice to argue your point more forcefully. Or perhaps you move to silence, figuring the debate is not worth damaging relationships; nothing will change anyway. It’s not worth creating hurt feelings with people you need to work with every day.

When we encounter difference—differences of opinion, culture, race, sexual orientation, education level, expertise, behavioral style, and so on—we often interpret it as a threat to what we want or what is important to us. To protect ourselves (our ideas, our standing in the group, our sense of competence), we react with judgment and fear.

Curiosity and compassion are the first and second casualties, followed closely by less than stellar results—and we usually don’t even notice our role in the problem.

“If we aren’t going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking,” says Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness. She argues that we need conflict to solve problems better together. She believes that lack of information is seldom the reason we experience problems such as childhood cancer or failed space shuttle missions. In her TED talk Dare to disagree The need for conflict to think better together, Heffernan notes that “the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to.”

Our inability to engage conflict, to hold and explore our differences, causes us to suppress or ignore others’ perspectives while promoting our own, or to not share views that could help the group make a more informed decision. She describes the ideal model for collaboration as “thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers.” When people believe their views will be honored and valued, they are better able to share and explore risky or unpopular ideas.

If we can reframe our notion of conflict as something scary, unproductive, or painful, and instead see it as thinking—as being able to hold divergent views simultaneously — we can learn from them. “For constructive conflict, we have to resist the neurobiological drive which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves,” says Heffernan. “Collaboration takes differences, energy, time—which really is love.”

Love—that’s a four letter word we don’t hear much about in the workplace.

If Heffernan is right, love—caring for others— is the key to holding and exploring differences effectively.



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