We have learned that unless we have something “nice” to say, we should stay silent. Unfortunately, this drives a conflict-avoidant behavior well into our adult lives.
Even well-supported and -founded conflict resolution models (such as the Thomas-Kilmann instrument) are based on the unstated assumption that we know what we want – based on insight into what our own best interests are – and can articulate it, compare it with alternatives, and argue our case.
This fairly analytical view of conflicts skips the “quenching” mechanism coming from not feeling free to speak our minds even when it’s a dumb question or slight critique. Many teams (in fact, most teams I have ever worked with) have a huge “conflict debt”.
Legitimately opposing interests (eg between sales and delivery – does that sound familiar to anyone?) are escalated rather than resolved at an appropriate level, frequently due to our lack of conflict habituation. We avoid tough conversations, rather send an email, right?
We must un-learn the habit of only speaking up when we have something nice to say. This is not about being obnoxiously aggressive. But about acknowledging that we are actually NOT all pulling in the same direction. We often have different, even opposing objectives, sometimes to a level of win/lose.
Before we can start working through our conflicts, we need to get used to their existence; expose ourselves to training in conflict habituation. This needs to be long-term; after all, we are dealing with deeply rooted behaviors.
As part of my work in team development, I offer a 9-step conflict habituation program. Each step is a small exercise, a tiny step towards being able to address conflicting interests without going full-throttle emotional about it.
Step 1 is: Explore facts (or, information presented to you as facts). Ask where they’re from or what they’re based on. Make everyone understand that you’re a team asking questions and not accepting everything as given. Do this for a week and notice how this becomes easier every time you try. Step 2-9 gently introduces increasing levels of pressure and interpersonal risk.
Only when we are relaxed about legitimate conflicts can we bring them to the surface and work on their constructive resolution. A prerequisite for teams looking to be innovative, creative, productive – and friends having fun.