A couple weeks ago, I mentioned research about how our brains are wired differently with regard to our ability to deal with negative inputs. This got me thinking about the different ways people relate to conflict. Some thrive on it or at least aren’t entirely thrown off by it. Others shy away and avoid it at all costs.
My brother and his wife bicker. It’s part of their relationship and they don’t seem to mind it. To an outsider like my husband, their bickering sounds like argument. He cringes when he’s around it.
In his good natured way, Jim used to try to smooth things over until one day when my brother told him, “You know, we like to argue. We’re used to it.”
One unspoken message was, “It’s no big deal. It’s not a real conflict, not the kind to worry about.”
Another message was, “This is how we are. Accept us.”
Recently, a client took pains to explain to me that his team is a bit rough around the edges. “They cuss and call each other names,” he said, “but it’s all good natured.”
At a meeting a while back, a person raised her voice in frustration over a project that had yet one more problem rear its ugly head. It so happened that the person next to her was new to the team. Her body tightened, although her facial expression appeared calm. The rest of the team wasn’t bothered.
“If we can’t share our feelings around each other,” one of them said. “What kind of team are we?”
In another work group, being polite and supportive is valued above discussing unpleasant realities. Euphemisms are the norm. “If we bring up the [unpleasant issue] directly, Vincent will be upset.”
In the “About Me” section of this blog, I explain that my father sees conflict and argument as a form of intimacy. If you’re not willing to engage with him, how is he to know who you really are? To trust you?
One of my mentors, a man who worked with inter-ethnic conflict in Russia and Ireland, had the same belief. “Conflict is a cry for intimacy,” he’d say.
What happens when a group of people with opposite conflict styles end up on a team together?
It can be a train wreck unless team members know and respect these differences. Everyone needs to make adjustments. Individuals with greater capacity to flex further have the added responsibility of helping the team hold its center.
If you’re the type of person who needs conflict to trust people, you need to accept the fact that your counterpart might be the type of person who trusts only when she feels safe which for her means civil discussion without conflict. If you are the person who can’t stand conflict, you need to accept the fact that your counterpart doesn’t feel safe or trusting unless you’re willing to let them know exactly where you stand, even if it’s in a different place. Each of you needs to find the strength to step out of your preferred style far enough to find a sweet spot of mutually supportive interaction.
One approach that can help a team draw together around this issue is to learn how to argue effectively. Argument is information. It does not have to turn into the kind of conflict that scares people and causes them to withdraw.
If you were ever taught how to write a persuasive essay in high school, you might recall that an effective argument consists of three parts: assertions, reasons, evidence or ARE for short.
While it seems as if emotions are left out of the equation, they are not. You may argue with passion as long as you include all three elements.
The key to arguing persuasively is that you need to know the other side’s perspectives almost as well as you do your own.
The entire team benefits when a full exploration of perspectives is on the table. Your group then has the best chance of identifying more robust and comprehensive options. This happens when team members take the next steps which include combining aspects of each side into a broader understanding of what is possible.
It gets tricky when a new member is added to an intact team. If the team and new individual have opposite styles and expectations, the entire membership must take time to talk about norms and expectations.
Often when I’ve been called in to help a team resolve interpersonal conflicts affecting its performance, I find that a meta conflict is what I call “whose reality dominates.” By this I mean which conflict or personality style dominates the culture of the team. Shining a light on this dynamic is a first step toward addressing it. Behavior styles assessments can help too.
One conflict style is not superior to another. They are simply different strategies toward achieving team and personal goals. It’s usually not the style that is the biggest problem. It’s a person’s intentions. That’s a topic for another blog.
What can you do to flex your style to meet someone with a different style halfway?