If it’s a constructive conflict, yes. Conflict is necessary to come to mutually beneficial agreements with others properly. Providing the conflict is respectful and seeks to find the best path forward; you could argue that conflict is one of the most healthy things you can do.
Constructive conflict is the art of disagreeing well and finding a mutually beneficial conclusion to the tension. I’m going to talk about why you need to get into constructive conflicts, how to do it and some of the ways you can move forward with the person.
We each get into a series of conflicts daily. These can be tiny conflicts like deciding what to wear, who should do the dishes or paying the bills. Major conflicts are things like a relationship turning sour or an intense disagreement at work.
Some conflicts turn violent, and others internally build up creating inner tension that can erode your mental health over time.
When we are conflicted, we feel emotional energy similar to being pulled in two directions as though somebody has a hold of each of your arms. It can cause sleep deprivation, irritability and in some severe cases, bodily sicknesses. According to a recent study whose findings reinforce what we’ve come to suspect about the effects of stress on the body:
‘Stress in general… is related to a number of chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and poor immune functioning.’
Our bodies can literally be immobilised by toxic stress causing us to shut down physically.
Have you ever had that moment where you have been burning the candle at both ends in your work and home life, only to find that the moment you finally get a break – you get sick? A cold, a fever, a headache and a general feeling of being run down. Sometimes you need a break, just to let your body recover from the emotional burden being carried.
It’s for these reasons that getting into conflicts proactively becomes all the more important. When somebody upsets us, we can handle it in a variety of ways.
In an unhealthy manner, we might blow up with anger making the situation worse. In other cases, we might emotionally distance ourselves from someone and punish them by shunning them socially. Somewhere in-between, we may find ourselves making passive-aggressive digs at them from a place of inner tension.
In an attempt to resolve our conflict, we find ways to express how we feel. When we don’t direct those feelings intentionally, our emotions overflow in ways, we never intended.
My Experiences of Conflict
I grew up in a home where it was sometimes difficult to express how I was feeling. I lacked the language and emotional tools to reconcile inner tensions simply through situational circumstances of being raised in government housing and being deprived of contexts where we could learn social subtleties of negotiating with others. Because of the social and cultural context, I was not often exposed to people with a healthy emotional range of expressions. This meant that stress and tensions were expressed in physical forms, and conflicts were resolved, oftentimes, in an unhealthy manner.
It was common for the police to visit ours and neighbouring houses. It was common to see a physical fight break out amongst school mates. From the ages of 10 upwards, physical aggression, derogatory jokes and vandalism were the tools used to express inner turmoil. It was frequently the case that we didn’t know why we behaved the way we did, but if you dig around deep enough, you will find that those actions were linked to deeper emotional tension.
I recently saw an old school report where my grades started to dip, and I can remember some complicated situations that coincided. The results are directly linked. Jump into adulthood, and the tensions work the same.
We have an inner conflict because we disagree with someone, or the behaviour has grated against us. We have options, but when we pick the ones that don’t lead to constructive solutions, we find relationships continually get strained.
Respect People Enough To Get Into The Conflict
I know people that are still holding grudges from things that happened 3 years ago. I’ve been in a conversation where someone has brought up something they had a problem with 12 months earlier. 12 months! That means for a whole year, this person was nursing some stress and upset towards me without ever having a direct conversation.
Imagine all of the people who go around nursing hurt, pain and tension because we avoid conflict. Imagine the stress we each carry because we haven’t taken the time to build high trust relationships where we can be both candid and kind.
Do you want to carry this inner turmoil any longer?
Do you want friendships and working relationships that harbour resentment?
Do you want to scold and be scolded for years at a time emotionally?
Me neither. That’s why we need to embrace constructive conflict. There are a few things I’ve picked up that have helped me over the years. In the interest of full disclosure, I still have my fair share of unresolved conflicts with other people. You’ll see at the end of this article why that sometimes happens. You have to make peace because some relationships will turn sour, and no matter what you do, they will be sore for a long time.
It’s also worth considering that you can want a constructive conflict, but it requires the other person to want healthy conflict. If the other party only knows how to express their conflicts in unhealthy ways, it might not always work. When we try to resolve conflict, all sorts of nasty insecurities can arise. Sometimes you need to walk away from a toxic situation, and sometimes you need to make peace and leave it unresolved.
Here are a few things you can try to help get into constructive conflicts.
1) Express Yourself With a Sense of Clarity.
Before getting into a conflict with somebody, try to practice a bit of self-awareness. You mustn’t ignore your shortcomings. Try to build a sense of ownership around your own behaviour before addressing a conflict with someone else. The teaching:
‘First, take the log out of your own eye before removing the speck out of your brother’s eye’
from Jesus comes to mind. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have no right to confront something because you have your own issues. It means that we need to check ourselves first and put our inner world right before addressing the world around us. The verse continues to say that when we have dealt with the ‘log’ in our own eye, we can then see clearly to deal with the ‘spec’ in our brother’s eye. The inference here is that as we are willing to confront and deal with ourselves, we have clarity when dealing with conflicts in others’ lives.
We can be blind to our own emotional reactions. First, sit and take stock of how you are feeling. What is it about this conflict that got under your skin? Why might it make you feel agitated? Is there something deeper below the emotion that you might be missing?
Often the thing we are upset with is not the issue; it could be subconsciously connected to something else. Take a good 30 mins to an hour, depending on how severe the conflict is, and really examine yourself. Find a quiet space, go for a walk, sit in silence and/or close your eyes. Whatever works for you, give yourself the mental space to really look into your inner self and face any ugly emotions that might be lurking beneath the surface.
Capture them and write them down. You don’t need a fancy tool, list them and see them on a note so you can look upon them and reflect.
|List the problem in full.
|Note all the things you are feeling.
|Note all the aspects of why it’s an issue,
|Capture the reasons why you feel this way.
2) Address the Conflict Diplomatically
How you feel cannot be argued with. Your emotions are valid, and they are what they are. We can argue as to whether they are appropriate for the situation, but regardless, you must be feeling them for a reason. Once you have a sense of personal clarity around the conflict and your feelings about the matter, you must decide if it’s something you need to let go or if you need to at least try and get it resolved.
Many conflicts come down to each of us having off days, things not going well at home or just a lack of sleep. Not every conflict needs to be tackled full-on. If the issue is relentless and clearly not a one-off, then you might want to tackle it. Equally, after examining yourself, you may find that you’re overreacting and decide to let it go.
If you are left still feeling conflicted after reflecting and thinking it’s worth pursuing, you need to articulate the problem with a sense of objectivity. It also helps to have a sense of what you want the outcome to be.
Do you want to reconcile with somebody? Are you looking for an apology? Are you trying to understand why a conversation went badly? Are you dealing with bad behaviour? Was there an expectation that went unmet, and the list goes on.
Benjamin Franklin had a great method for helping map this out. All you need is a pen and paper, or something on which you can make a note like the one below. List the problem, causes, possible solutions and methods out on a grid. You can then try different ways of approaching the conflict.
|James seems to mock every idea I come up with in the meeting.
It’s relentless and has been going on for months. At first, it was banter, but now it’s started to feel targeted and uncomfortable. I feel angry and frustrated because other people see it, and my ideas get overlooked.
|– James could be insecure (or I/both of us could be) and finds me an easy target to relieve his fear.
– I might be inviting it by speaking down at the floor and allowing him to trailblaze over my ideas.
– We didn’t know each other well and didn’t get off to a good start. When he started at our firm, I tried making a joke about his hair so he’d feel a part of the group. He might not have taken it well, and it’s fuelled him to behave like this.
|– Talk to him about how the jokes come across and why I feel like he might have something against me.
– Make a point of contending for my ideas in meetings and head off some humour proactively.
– Confidently express how I want the best working relationship, so our time at work can be fulfilling, especially since we spend most of our time here.
– Escalate the conversation if we can’t find a working way forward together.
– Call out humour that crosses the line.
|– First, go to James directly and ask for a focussed conversation about it. Lay it on the table and find out the motivation with no judgement on my part, despite what I think might be the cause – I could be wrong.
– Second, if it goes well, talk about how we can set a good culture when it comes to banter.
– Third, if it goes badly, make sure I don’t accept jokes that go too far. If necessary, escalate up to line manager or HR.
– Fourth, look to praise James where I can and try to set a positive tone.
You can apply this to any conflict, either professional or personal. It might not bring all the answers, but it gives a framework for thinking through tackling the conflict. As you think over the conflict, you might discover more solutions as you dig deeper. You could try each method and move to the next one if the previous one didn’t work. If you come to the end of your ideas and it’s still an issue, you can revisit the drawing board. In the odd scenario, you might find that the conflict is toxic, in which case it’s a whole different thing to tackle.
3) Prepare the Conversation
In my experience, nothing ever resolves itself. Most conflicts that are big enough to weigh on your mind and are not considered small issues need tackling quickly. An unresolved conflict will almost certainly roll around again and again, so it’s best to pursue the conversation as soon as practical.
Make sure you take the time to go through steps one and two above. I normally sit on an issue for at least a few days to let emotions settle and then look to get into the conversation with a clear head. The sooner you speak to the person, the sooner the inner turmoil can be relieved.
Ask to meet with the person face to face where possible or at the very least, a phone conversation. Do not do this by email. If you’re able to meet in person, a neutral place is always preferred.
Put the agenda on their radar as early as possible. Some people have a philosophy of not bringing up the issue until knee-deep in a face to face meet up. It’s not only bad practice, but it ensures that the other person will be on the defensive. It’s always irritating to go for a coffee with someone when you sense there is an agenda. You speak for 40 mins and skirt around the issue until the end of the conversation, and then everyone’s on edge.
It leaves you with little time to talk through the issue, and the person will feel sideswiped. Be courageous and put it on their radar about why you want to talk. You don’t have to go into details, but say something like “I’d really like us to speak about a few things. I’ve been thinking through ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’, and I’d like us to find some solutions together. Would you be up for getting together for us to talk things over?”.
Your gut will wrench, it will feel awkward, but at least you’re facing the feelings and looking to respect the person by being direct with them. Remember, the goal is to bring the conflict to the desired outcome that suits everyone.
When you do speak, get straight to it and use the time well. Don’t skirt the issue and dress it up. Everyone can feel it when somebody dances around an issue, making you look unsure and sloppy.
Start with how you feel about the problem and why you think you felt that way (remember the self-reflecting exercise and how it has prepared you). Talk about your desire to solve the problem and listen to how they respond. Validate their response and give them as much credibility as you can.
4) Find an Agreed Outcome
Overall, 3 things can happen with a conflict. The first and most undesirable is that you both skirt the issue, refuse to have a constructive conflict and harbour deep passive (or not so passive) resentment that colours your relationship for years to come.
The second is that the person responds poorly, blows up, and/or creates an impasse where nothing can be done.
The third is that you both find a way to compromise, communicate and move forward with a healthy perspective on the issues.
It usually only goes down one of these three paths. The hope is that you can wrestle it through to the healthy third state. Regardless of the outcome, it is better that you tried to resolve the conflict by tackling it head-on. If it blows up, the person will know that you don’t tolerate unresolved conflict which will show good character, even if they dislike you as a result. If it goes well, you will have fought for a healthy and dynamic relationship.
You aim is not to control the outcome, it’s simply to be a person of character and integrity. You do this by looking for every possible solution to reconcile the conflict. You don’t get to dictate the outcome. How the other person reacts is entirely up to them. If they spit the dummy, throw a wobbly, scream, shout or do backflips, that’s entirely up to them. What they can never say is that you left the conflict unspoken and ignored.
Romans 12:18 says ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’. Your job is to attempt to resolve the conflict, but it takes two parties to move forward. You need to say that you did everything that depended on you to move it forward, even if the outcome is negative.
Accept the outcome whichever way and move forward. You may also find that you can’t finish the conversation in one sitting. It’s fine to say “Look, we’re not going to solve this today. Can we shelve the conversation and take a break. We can come back to it at another date”.
Some conflicts can be ongoing as we wrestle for a while in finding the way forward.
Whether it’s personal or with a co-worker, whatever your conflict, begin using these steps to address the conflict. Don’t leave a valuable relational future on the table by sticking your head in the sand. It will take courage, but you can do this. You need to walk yourself through the steps and hope for the best possible outcome.
Discussion Rules: I’m not into thought policing at all, but I am big on honour and respect. Opinionated is fine, but if you’re ill-mannered or nasty, expect to see your comments disappear. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (All credit to Tim Ferris’ site which I totally took this idea from).