Have you ever noticed when you are feeling in conflict with another person – in disagreement, having a misunderstanding, or feeling disappointment – there is a distinct kind of energy you experience? For example, if Mary misses an important deadline, yet again, there are almost always accompanying feelings of frustration, irritation and even anger. These negative feelings are all very normal given such a circumstance. It is important to note, however, these feelings are in response to Mary’s inaction – they are a separate matter from the situation which generated them and need to be managed as such. In conflict there are always 2 things happening, the external event – in this case, Mary has missed an important deadline again and our internal state – how we are feeling about it.
Conflict has 2 realities – the external circumstance and an internal experience
In order to successful navigate through our conflicts with others it is critical to learn how to separate the conflict event from our conflict experience. The reality of Mary’s inaction needs to be addressed and it is a leader’s job to do so in a way that develops relational trust and solves the problem. In addition you may find yourself needing to do ‘damage control’ with others (perhaps ‘let down’ clients or annoyed co-workers) and being able to distinguish the difference between the offending action and how it feels for you will also be very useful. If you proceed to have a conversation with Mary and the negative tension is prevalent there is an almost certain consequence of eroding trust, and diminishing problem solving. This is exactly why a lot of us don’t have the timely conversations when such difficulties occur – we know these kinds of conversations tend to not go well, nothing gets resolved and they feel really bad. What if there was another way? What if instead of thinking about the tension that occurs as a result of conflict as only a negative thing, we could also think about it as something positive? That the very energy that generates stress and discomfort is also the same energy that can transform our difficulties into rich opportunities to deepen learning and build strong relationships. Tension after all involves stretching and isn’t that exactly what is required of us in order to solve difficult problems – to expand our thinking in order to generate exceptional solutions?
It is possible to have Successful Tension
Working with leaders this is exactly the kind of reframing around conflict that I help support. It is not about eradicating the friction we feel around difficult circumstances (that is impossible) but rather using this same energy as a force for good, as a way to enhanced learning, as an opportunity to build trust with others and to focus our energies toward sustainable progress.
The positive characteristics that align with conflict include things like, curiosity, caring, and invigorating challenge. In the tensional energy that is the hallmark of difficult conversations lies the ability to learn more about the problem itself and why it keeps happening. This tension allows for the exploration of things like, System Efficiencies – is Mary getting information she needs in timely ways?, Human Capacity – does Mary have the necessary skills? and Relational Health -are Mary’s relationships with coworkers and clients defined by strong communication? Everyone one of these questions have answers with the real potential to generate transformational problem solving.
So the next time you find yourself experiencing negative and debilitating feelings around a conflict remember you have the power to take that same energy and turn it into successful tension.