Why conflict is like eating carrots

At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna (or Candide), in the world of my dreams there would be no conflict.

How different would the workplace be?

We would all link hands in a circle and sing songs of joy at the sense of wonderment that our goals and approaches are perfectly aligned to each other.

The sun would shine, the birds would sing and the bunnies would hop about happily in the fields. My work environment would be super-harmonious: brimming with positive energy and enthusiasm.Everyone would be totally in alignment, achieving completely shared goals, with the wholehearted support of everyone around us.

Confronting Conflict

In this “work-topia”, none of us would be confronted, or forced to see another viewpoint, or challenged to improve our knowledge.

No difference of opinions to confound us or to show us that our first impression of a topic isn’t always perfect 20:20 vision.

Decisions efficiently made without the need for any time-consuming discussion; personal and professional growth no longer necessary.

Ultimately, we would wither and die on the vine of extreme collaboration and alignment.

OK, so perhaps if my dreams are getting that weird, I should lay off the cheese before bedtime.

But the issue remains: I dislike conflict situations, yet I know they’re good for me. Kind of like carrots.

So why do I have such strong anti-conflict feelings? Why can’t I just take a tennis player approach and say “bring it on”? I know I’m not alone in my aversion; certainly I’m not the only member of the Conflict Haters Club. Many people, like me, approach conflict with fear and loathing, (and possibly feel the same about carrots too). 

High emotion conflict

Really, for me it comes down to avoiding heated conflict, or high emotion conflict.

Heated conflict has the potential to create more problems than it solves. What starts as an attempt to solve a problem, can easily morph into a desperate desire to “win” the battle. 

We may retreat into silence or attack with verbal violence, and the need to win takes over any thought of the consequences.

And that will often be at the expense of the longer-term working relationships with colleagues, management, customers and other stakeholders.

Conflict for development

Yet conflict is necessary for development.

Do we imagine that we’re so perfect that we don’t need to consider differing viewpoints? Do I hate the thought that I could be incorrect, or partially wrong, not gifted with the all-seeing, all-knowing, Sherlock-esque detecting and analysis talents that I like to believe that I have?

I know, in the clear light of day, that I’m not nearly as perfect as I might like, and yet the idea of different viewpoints strongly and (possibly) loudly presented, still creates an over-reaction of fear for the consequences to workplace relationships.

Why conflict can be a good thing

Conflict is good for quality output. Good for my organisation, my team, and my customers.

Conflict is a sign that people are passionate and engaged.

Conflict is a way of leveraging the abilities and viewpoints of multiple stakeholders to create an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s not the conflict itself: it’s how conflict is managed that makes all the difference.

Conflict well-managed

Well-managed conflict acts as the “sandpaper” that smooths the rough surface and makes the outcome so much better. Without the abrasion of sandpaper there would be no smooth edges. We would be beset with splinters and metal burrs to catch ourselves on.

Conflict well-managed will be like sandpaper in the hands of an artisan. Or carrots in the hands of a master chef.

So the next time you find yourself caught up in a robust exchange of views, consider what you do next and how you respond. Managed well, the conflict that arises can make a gourmet extravaganza out of what otherwise could have been a dog’s breakfast if emotions or the need to win were allowed to take over.

Take a breath and focus on the higher purpose of producing quality outcomes and smooth edges.

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