How to Deal with Conflict in Life and Work

Life would certainly be easier if we all got along with each other, wouldn’t it? On the surface, people are ready to agree, nod and even go along with what you propose. In reality, the situation is vastly different. Life and work continues to teach us that we react to conflict in a visceral manner. The reasons are many – the potential of being disliked, vulnerable, ridiculed and even cast out is real. For some, the fear of the unknown or unexpected can be paralyzing.  What if you are stuck with figuring out the uncharted territory? For others, strong emotions associated with conflict might be overwhelming. What if the issue escalates quickly and virulently?

When asked what a life without conflict might look like, most participants in a recent leadership seminar responded: “boring, without excitement,”  “complacent, no growth,”  “low stress yet uninteresting,” “dull without propelling tension.” Isn’t that a human paradox? While conflict can irritate, it can also beckon. While conflict can bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the extraordinary. While conflict can make us resist, it can also expand our understanding. While conflict can divide, it can also unite.

As participants discussed ideas and practiced on examples of conflict from their work, here is what I observed:

There Is No Single Truth

Yet each person’s truth is valid, mirrored in their individual belief, experience and understanding.  It reminded me of a quote by Anne Lamott, “Reality is unforgivingly complex.”  What transpired in group practice was the intense awareness that multiple realities co-exist uneasily and simultaneously, much like a dormant volcano.  Each reality is fiercely guarded and defended; each voice supported by experience and assumptions; each idea the right one.  What might help towards a shared truth?

  • Without comment, allow each idea to surface and sit on the table-if people resist your invitation to speak up, have them write down their perspective and include it on the table.  Suspend disbelief, judgment, and blame to create an environment of ownership and influence.  Allow silence to work its magic as people reflect on the path they have followed to come to their reality.
  • Offer powerful questions for the group to consider.  I like to give folks colored sand to use as “magic dust” as they sprinkle it on their conflict to come up with ideas that could be life-changing and effective.  What are some of your favorite questions to ask?

Showing Up Matters

Yet it is easier to hide or duck.  It is certainly the safe option.  However, I believe that the risk here is worth taking because, as trite as this sounds, if not now, then when? If not you, then who? Hold your advice and first, have a frank conversation with yourself.  Make a choice to be wholeheartedly present, without ego and assumptions.  This behavior is probably the hardest to practice, especially with no easy win in sight.  What has helped you practice this behavior?

  • Jiddu Krishnamurthy, a philosopher, once said, “In the beginner’s mind, possibilities are endless.  In the expert’s mind, possibilities are few.”  Be the beginner, in each conversation to explore and uncover a mutual “yes.”  A beginner in a conversation assumes that there is something new to be learned, an idea to be challenged or a different perspective to be gained.  “What if?” is a good place to begin because it unleashes imagination and gives us permission to wonder aloud without the stress of coming up with the “right” solution.
  • Seth Godin caught my attention when he introduced the word PARCOSM into my vocabulary, a word that means to create an ornate, richly detailed imaginary world – something I believe has universal appeal and might quickly bring conversations back to the essentials—what can we do collectively to create greater good and how might individual talents be harnessed?

Each Conversation is Hard Work

The moment one barrier is removed, another pops up. The moment a tenuous agreement is reached, it breaks. The moment you think you have made a friend, egos clash. Yet, each conversation is worth our time and attention because the only way out is through the mess in a dedicated and disciplined manner. How have you made this easier on yourself?

  • Be authentic and true to yourself Being honest in everyday interactions is hard work because of work politics, cultural norms and importantly, the invisible shield of defensiveness each one of us carries into these interactions. In a recent conversation, I heard a colleague say, “Honesty isn’t optional.  Timing perhaps is.”  I would add paying attention to your language, specifically the words with which you choose to enter conversations.  Take an inventory of your vocabulary to identify words that create a space for engagement and those that drive conversations away.
  • What is the return on investment to you each time you have an authentic conversation? This is a deeply personal reflection because it requires coming out of the hiding, with blemishes and all to get past the bumps and create extraordinary results.  What are you willing to openly confront and possibly give up so that it frees you to remember why you bother?

I’d like to hear your thoughts! Please leave them in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

By Sunitha Narayanan

Sunitha Narayanan is a certified career coach with a passion for connecting people and their talents to life and work opportunities. She is a co-active coach, empowering her clients to believe in their dreams, set actionable goals and actively create joy in their work lives. She is with Promark Company, a Career Partners International firm that offers executive coaching, leadership development and outplacement services. Learn about her interests by visiting her LinkedIn profile.