“I don’t trust her anymore, and I won’t work with her,” I heard him declare to his leadership team. The senior executive I was coaching firmly believed he was well within his rights to publicly discount and disparage his colleague—but he privately confessed to me his frustration at not being able to have a conversation with her directly. After I shared the following three rarely talked about constructs with him, he saw a way to easily transform his interpersonal conflict into an effective working relationship.
We conjure conflict as much as we have it.
Writing people off in public is inexcusable behavior from a leader. Whoever hears us will “borrow” our assessment, which can effectively undermine their working relationship with the person we’ve written off.
I often see leaders going into a conversation preemptively assigning a particular response to the other party as if they’ve already had the conversation. A response based on an anticipation that the other person is already in disagreement or the belief that they have a hidden agenda. Whether this is true or not doesn’t really matter. We’ve brought an interpretation—our own “hidden” agenda—to the relationship even before we start the conversation. It’s normal for people to have different points of view. But our anticipation of conflict generates conflict. If we can own that as something we’ve conjured up, then we have the potential to have an effective conversation instead of actively avoiding a conflict.
To easily enter a conversation, we first need to be well-intended. Second, we need to be able to give the other party the benefit of the doubt that they are competent and well-intended as well. As leaders, we have a responsibility to not go into a conversation assigning a response to the other person. Coming in “clean”, we can ask if the other person is satisfied with our working relationship, and then identify what’s missing or what needs to change for both of us to be satisfied with the way we’re working together.
Leadership is about putting our intentions—not our assumptions or fears—first.
We normalize conflict as being something problematic.
It’s often our orientation to a conversation that really keeps us from having it—not simply the circumstances or our lack of conversational tools. Many of us come to conflict subconsciously behaving as if someone has to “lose” and someone has to “win”, someone is “right” and someone is “wrong”. If we subconsciously orient ourselves toward conflict as a battle between opposing forces of good and evil, then we perceive there’s a lot at risk. Our imaginations, fueled by fear, are capable of drama greater than reality. For example, our reputations are on the line. We must overcome. Good must triumph.
I’ve seen competent leaders choose to orient themselves toward conflict as something normal—and actually useful—rather than recoil from it and miss the opportunity it represents. They tell me that, with this positive intention, initiating conversations in the presence of conflict no longer includes a lot of tension or require hard work. They can invite people to have a conversation, curious about learning from the other person’s point of view.
This is where innovation comes from.
We take sides in our relationships.
Taking sides holds polarities in place. Left versus right, tradition versus innovation, wrong versus right are all constructs that keep us apart as we self-identify with our positions. In choosing sides, we in effect take a stand AGAINST our relationship. We sign ourselves up for resentment (rejecting what is so at present) or resignation (rejecting the negative future). Without a conceptual framework that can bring us together, nothing will change. All we can do is dance back and forth, horns locked in battle.
The mental and emotional energy we expend resisting each other represents trapped capacity in our organization. A capacity that could be better spent innovating, creating, and executing. If we can focus on acknowledging the organizational imperatives or performance goals that we have in common (rather than on reaching a compromise between positions–something that both parties will view as sub-optimal), then we can co-create from there. An orientation toward co-creating is ultimately necessary: we operate in emerging circumstances where we’re collectively responding to what’s emerging from “what we don’t know that we don’t know.” This requires that we learn from each other in conversation.
Leaders elevate trust by valuing and investing in other people’s ideas and points of view.
It takes a certain amount of interpersonal maturity to enter a conversation when we sense conflict is possible. If we bring our own hidden agenda of conflict to the table, we’ll prevent agreement. If we’re intractable in our position, we can’t nurture our relationship. If we’re attached to having one party win at the expense of the other, we can miss the best way of solving the problem.
Going in the front door can be relatively easy. Conjure effective working relationships by being well-intended. Grant other people the benefit of the doubt that they are competent and well-intended. Normalize to conflict as a useful opportunity to learn from each other. Respect and find value in other ideas and points of view.