Good Conflict and Bad Conflict

Jan. 8, 2012 by Lorraine Segal
Good Conflict and Bad Conflict

How can we reframe conflict to have positive outcomes?

Do you see conflict as positive or negative?

Unless you are a conflict resolution specialist, chances are when you hear the word "conflict", you cringe and think of something horrible that happened at work, with a client, or out in the world. Negative examples of conflict are everywhere: just turn your TV on to almost any sitcom, talk show, reality show or news program to see people acting out their conflicts in the worst way possible.

Participants blame, shame, and accuse each other; hold and later spew out secrets and resentments, rarely taking any responsibility for their own behavior. They are focused on name calling rather than problem solving.

Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, in their excellent book, Developing Your Conflict Competence, call this familiar kind of bad conflict “relationship” or “affective” conflict. It often harms or even destroys professional and personal relationships, so of course we see it as dangerous.

But, there is a better, kinder, and much more useful type of conflict. Runde and Flanagan refer to it as “task” or “cognitive” conflict. Many of us know little about it, since there are far fewer models available.

In task conflict, members of a group, whether a small business, work team,  non-profit organization or family, share a common goal, vision, and/or set of principles. Although members may have very different ideas about how to achieve the goal, the conflict is focused on how to get there rather than on personality battles.

Of course, even with a shared vision, it can be seductively easy to slip into relationship conflict. A department or team member who insists s/he the only right answer, for example, can lead the group right back to affective warfare.

But, if everyone stays focused on their shared vision and trust the potential value of divergent ideas and perspectives, if they keep listening with full attention even when they vehemently disagree, they may be amazed at the result.

This positive conflict process may enable them to reach far more robust, creative, and comprehensive solutions than they ever could with one person or small group imposing their idea. Results can include kudos from clients and a more satisfying and harmonious workplace.

How can we support this shift to unfamiliar good conflict in ourselves and others? It takes work and awareness to focus on principles instead of personalities and understand the immense possibilities that open up if collaboration replaces accusations.

We can sharpen and expand our problem solving and communication skills by:

• Listening actively, instead of using the time to mentally rehearse rebuttal arguments.

• Stating our opinions while respecting the contributions of others.

• Strengthening our ability to manage our emotions, which are inevitably part of human interaction.

• Staying focused on the goals and vision of the group.

• Choosing to believe that everyone has worthwhile contributions to make, even when it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.

Conflict communication workshops or conflict coaching sessions can help us see and practice the changes we want to make.

In ongoing relational conflicts, mediations offer “combatants” the opportunity for a safe place to listen and share honestly, heal, and make a fresh start.

I’m not sure conflict, even the positive task kind, ever feels easy. But, if we are willing to improve our attitudes and start valuing our differences of opinion, productive disagreements can enrich our lives.

Lorraine Segal and her business, Conflict Remedy, are based in Santa Rosa, California. Lorraine provides one on one communication coaching, training, and mediation by telephone and face to face. She also teaches in the conflict resolution program at Sonoma State University.