The Power of “Staying” In Conflict

Heartland Leadership Initiative on October 30, 2020

As a leader, when was the last time you found yourself thinking, “I really hope I have a conflict today?” If you are like most of us, probably never. In fact such a statement is likely to arouse a nervous chuckle as we even think of addressing conflict. Perhaps sentiments such as, “Don’t rock the boat!” have lured us into thinking that “not speaking up” is synonymous to respect, forgiveness, or even a badge of honor. Or perhaps it is because we are living in an age transformed by instant dissemination of our thoughts without the need to face someone directly, allowing us to freely express our opinion with the only consequences being to be “unfriended” or receiving a retaliation post, yet denying us the peace of resolution. Therefore let us take another look at conflict and assess the opportunity in our lives to restore truth in the matter.

Conflict is likely not one of those topics you are eager to address. You might even think that an ideal life would be completely without conflict.  However, if we look throughout history, behind every remarkable man or woman there are stories of great conflict. These experiences taught them principles that made them wise. What would it mean to history if conflict never existed? It means Michael Jordan would not have been cut from a basketball team and fueled to become the renowned basketball player he was. It means no tumultuous journey making Dr. Seuss into a prolific and beloved children’s author. It means no vision driving Henry Ford to revolutionize an entire industry. In each of these situations, strong leaders faced significant opposition to their ideas and success. Yet when they are interviewed, most share gratitude for their adversity – the conflicted times in their life – and credit it with their greatest impact and significance. They have come to realize that fulfilling their purpose comes from growth, which is inextricably intertwined with resolving conflict well. Why?

As we grow, new ideas are created and from these ideas many new perspectives and convictions are formed. These lead to increased clarity in our values, mission, and strategies that solidify the foundation upon which we build our lives. However, as we present these ideas and opinions to others, they don’t always understand or agree with us. Disagreements arise when our ideas and values clash with their own. Often subconsciously and with no malicious intent, tension is created and emotions run high as we passionately defend our values, ideas, and opinions. It is here where things heat up and offenses take hold. It is in this crucible of adversity where leaders and followers are sifted.  A major choice we face as leaders involves making the commitment to more productively communicate our values and ideas and to own our healthy reactions to the ideas and opinions of others.

As we intentionally choose to hone our awareness and ability to address conflict and the tension that accompanies it, we harness the opportunity to become better people. Our impact on the world

increases as we attract others to collaborate with us. We discover our strengths and weaknesses and help others discover theirs, facilitating greater innovation and creation.

However, the opposite can also play true. Avoiding the responsibility to address conflict has the power to diminish our life potential. If we do not intentionally choose to embrace humility and gratitude, which allow us to improve our character and learn the lessons taught in conflict, we might develop a posture of criticism and arrogance, hindering progress in all areas of life. Or we might become angry at our circumstances, harboring frustration, bitterness, and resentment. Sadly, this subverts the unique gifts we were given to contribute for great good, robbing us of the opportunity to fulfill our purpose and denying others the value of its impact.

So how do we begin improving our ability to thrive in conflict through peaceable means? It begins with a heart check.

Author Catherine Johnson wrote a book twenty or so years ago titled Lucky in Love. She’s a Ph.D who was determined to figure out what made deliriously happy married couples so deliriously happy. After interviewing approximately 100 couples, she revealed a significant conclusion. Dr. Johnson found that at some point in their relationship, every truly thriving couple had come to a critical point when they determined that they would willingly disagree but refused to destroy each other in the process. Each couple could provide the time, date, and location when they firmly established that they simply would not verbally attack each other, no matter how difficult the conversation. “When we quarrel (and we will!), we are not going to do the kinds of things that will damage the relationship long term,” Johnson paraphrases. “When we disagree we will not draw blood.”

What would it look life in our lives and in our communities, if we each approached conflict with the above sentiment, both at home and at the office?

The initial, most important, and incredibly difficult step in resolving conflict is to commit to “not draw blood.” Author Andy Andrews puts it this way: “If you want to raise up a truly remarkable next generation, teach them not to get offended.” Offense is a choice to punish one for their beliefs, versus a character commitment to remain respectful while pursuing truth. “Not drawing blood” is having the courage to step down from a place of pride and power to a place of servanthood where we are willing to understand the other person’s values and ideas, and humbly admit that our ideas and values can still be refined. It is a place of true strength, that does not require us to change, but allows us opportunity to willingly shift our perspective as we find flaws in our previous thinking. If we choose people over ideas, forgiveness over blame, we can be truly transformed by conflict!

What comes after the heart check?

Once we have put in the earnest time to align our hearts towards growth, respect, and restoration, versus “drawing blood”, the following practical points can help us prepare for the direct conversations necessary for conflict resolution:

  • Make sure the issue is worth addressing.  Does it really matter or should I let it go?
  • If it is worth it, address the conflict as soon as you have processed and prepared. Don’t delay.
  • Separate the people from the problem – and this includes YOU! When you link your intrinsic value to that of your ideas, the need to passionately defend and validate your worth rises up and forces the focus away from the issue itself. Your worth is not defined by the worth of your ideas or viewpoint. If we do not recognize this, we give others the authority to define how valuable we are; therefore we cannot humbly concede that another’s point may be better than ours without perceiving that to do so is an admission that they are in all ways better than we are. If your idea fails, you are not a failure. If your solution is not accepted, you still have much to contribute. And the same holds true for all parties to the conflict.
  • Be committed to humility especially when the conflict seems to resolve in your favor. To always be right can turn you into a proud person; you can win a discussion but lose a friend.
  • When possible talk through conflicts face to face. Try to avoid using written correspondence to resolve issues.
  • Start meetings on a positive note. There is always a genuine positive within all situations. Take the time to figure out what it is and express it first to set a tone of growth.
  • Just say it! Be specific, honest, and direct while outlining the problem. Often people feel obligated to present opinions with a level of politeness that can often dilute the point they are making until it is barely comprehensible. The others in the room respond with blank stares, wondering what in the world was just said. Good leaders don’t let this happen. Be courageous to tell a person or a team you sense something lurking in the shadows of their communication, and give them permission to speak freely without interruption.
  • Listen well. Honestly assess whether you are listening just to respond, or listening to truly understand.
  • Be hopeful. Cast vision for the future when you embrace a solution and continue discussions until that mutual decision is reached. If a mutual decision cannot be determined with extended discussion, a cordial parting of ways and boundaries can be implemented.
  • Once conflict is resolved, let it rest permanently!

In summary, excellent leaders realize that the best growth and innovation comes when people who think and act differently join them around the collaboration table.

Therefore, they expect conflict will happen, and so plan diligently to harness its energy and potential into a creative rather than destructive force.

A final encouragement: Your choice to embrace conflict is crucial at this time in history! As we stand up and fight for our values in healthy ways, the moral fabric of our society is strengthened. Consider the following analogy:

Once a father took his son to a boxing match. The son noticed that one of the boxers knelt down and prayed in his corner. The son asked the father, “Will that help him?” “Only if he is prepared to fight,” replied the father.

Likewise, we must be prepared to stand for our beliefs when something should be said. Checking our hearts ands handling conflict correctly sharpens everyone involved. The end result is that we all improve and grow and stretch. When we subject all ideas and motives to the plumb line of good values and principles, we will continue on the right path and show others the way as well.