You are here

Learning to Love Conflict:

June 23, 2021

By Katie Aldrich, Fringe Professional Development


Whether we welcome it or run from it, interpersonal conflict is all around us, and being physically separated from our colleagues over the last 15 months hasn’t helped. Without the casual run-in at the coffee station after an intense meeting to “check the temperature” with a colleague, even seemingly small disagreements can result in high levels of fear and anxiety. 

The good news is that we can change how we relate to conflict. In fact, when met with curiosity and empathy, conflict can help us understand ourselves more deeply and can strengthen our relationships with others. The following techniques will help you learn to love (or at least not actively hate) conflict.

Acknowledge what’s happening. Some conflicts are obvious, but others can hover under the radar. Maybe after a call with a teammate, you’re left feeling that they might be upset with you. Or maybe you realize too late that you dismissed a colleague’s differing opinion without asking for their reasoning. Instead of walking on eggshells until the next time you talk to that person, simply check in and acknowledge that something seems off. Let them know how you’re feeling and ask for their perspective. Saying, “I feel like our last call ended with some tension; what was your experience?” can create space to address whatever might be happening. You’ll either find out that there’s no issue, or you’ll uncover a conflict that needs some attention. If the latter, you can now figure out how to move forward together.  

Strive for understanding. We tend to think that resolving a conflict means coming to an agreement — either deciding that someone is right or finding a compromise. This goal often requires significant time and energy: mustering evidence for our position, thinking through acceptable compromises, and convincing others that we’re right. But this strategy tends to further entrench us — and the other party — in our original positions. Sometimes pushing for agreement pushes everyone further apart.   

Instead, reframe the idea of resolving conflict from agreeing to understanding. Make your goal to fully understand the other’s position and to work collaboratively to find a way forward. With this high-curiosity approach, you’ll end up learning about a point of view other than yours and activating your creativity. This enables you to find solutions that incorporate different perspectives. The more you can stay in a state of curiosity, the more solutions you will find.

Find the real issue. Conflicts typically reflect a deeper disagreement over priorities or values. Yet when we focus solely on agreement and compromise, we stay at the surface — addressing the symptoms but not the cause. So, take the next step: Stay curious about what’s really going on. When you get to the essence of the conflict — that kernel of what’s most important to both parties — you’ll likely discover various ways forward that honor everyone’s interests. And, in fact, these solutions might be more responsive to the underlying interests than your original plan. 

As you use these techniques to work through conflicts, remember to turn your curiosity inward! We’re so often stuck in our position that we forget — or don’t fully realize — why we care so much about our position in the first place. Strive to more deeply understand your own motivations so you can both create and welcome new solutions.

Staying Curious: Questions to Ask Yourself When in Conflict

  • What about this is important to you?
  • What will you lose if you don’t address this conflict?
  • What are your priorities moving forward?
  • What would you like the other person to know about your perspective?
  • What might be motivating the other person’s position?

Conflict is inevitable, but with these strategies, you can use conflict for good — to deepen your understanding of yourself and others, to strengthen your relationships, and to develop creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.