Managing Conflict

Do we want conflict on our teams?


“Truth springs from arguments amongst friends”

David Hume

Or a more earthy way of saying this:

“No pressure, no diamonds” 

Mary Case


Remember the parable of the 5 blindmen feeling something? If the first blindman speaks up and describes the elephant as a spear, do we want the rest of the team to harmoniously agree? Of course not! We want them to contribute their own different perspective in order to see the full elephant.

What if the first blind man is the big boss? How can you share your different perspective of the elephant? You need to be especially aware of this desire to avoid conflict in hierarchical cultures, including many Asian ones. People prefer to suppress their own opinion to maintain group harmony, or in order not to disagree with the boss. You will need to develop mechanisms for people to express their point of view safely if you operate in this type of culture in order to get the full perspective on the Elephant.

Teams without conflict will underperform as a result of Group Think – or maybe no-one cares enough to get the best answer.

Content vs Personal conflict

Of course, not all conflict is desirable. We want to encourage conflict of ideas, while minimising personal conflict.

content vs personal2

In order to be able to encourage content conflict while minimising personal conflict, each individual will need to maintain a clear distinction between the two. In the heat of battle, this is easier said than done. It is easy to move in a heartbeat from “He’s attacking my idea” to “He’s attacking me!”.

Dialogue is the conversational style for maximising content conflict while keeping the personal heat to a minimum.

Controlling your knee-jerk response

You are sitting in a meeting and have just proposes a course of action. One of your colleagues starts speaking. “I disagree. What we should do is……………..”

In an instant, your fight-or-flight reflex is triggered. I am under attack! Adrenaline spikes, heartrate accelerates readying your body for action……..In a split second you weigh up the situation, is the person is your superior or subordinate, how important is the issue, who is in the room…..and decide to fight, or stay quiet (flight).

This response comes from our evolutionary past when we were surrounded by physical danger. Humans without the fight or flight reflex got eaten – only those with fight-or-flight passed on their genes.

There is a third choice. However, there has not been enough time for our caveman genes to evolve to give appropriate responses to team meetings in conference rooms.

Fight or flight2

Your adrenaline rush is natural and hard-wired, let it wash over you and disappear. This gives you the ability to ignore the dead-end fight or flight responses, and instead use the different opinion to explore the issue better, actively listening to the other person’s point of view, and using dialogue to tease out the best team solution.

  1. First, re-express the other person’s point of view to check you understand it and make the other person feel listened to
  2. Secondly, list out areas of agreement. These build common ground and establish that you are partners in finding the best solution
  3. Then say what you have learned, to demonstrate you are open to persuasion based on evidence/facts
  4. Finally, once the above three discussions have set a constructive stage you can explore the different assumptions you have

To turn differences of opinion into constructive insight, you will need to be:

HUMBLE. Accept that you can NEVER EVER EVER see the full Elephant on your own. However smart you are, whatever the depth of your experience, you are just feeling a tusk. It’s OK not to be omniscient.

HONEST. Unpack your own thinking clearly and honestly so others can critique it

BRAVE. Accept that your own thinking may be shown to be incomplete in public

CURIOUS. Be genuinely curious about other people’s thinking and perspective. Help them unpack their thinking, ask questions to understand, not to shoot holes in their idea.


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