The Art of Productive Conflict

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How to make Fighting A Little More Like Dancing

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“I have rarely been in a public environment where I felt both supported and challenged. Most of these engagements end up either being too wishy-washy, or too confrontational. Terra and Zachary are a perfect yin-yang, neither of whom comes across as a cliche based on their gender, what we might think of as traditional feminine or masculine qualities. They both modeled all of them. Having that as their Way of Being made it all the easier for me to allow my own range of emotions to play out in the session. Comfortable, worthwhile, evolving. People say events “changed their life,” and it can seem overstated, but I found out things about myself I was never able to put into words before, and yes, that changed my life.” J.B, Productive Conflict Training, July 2014

Introduction

Conflict is fundamental to life. Yet in spite of how intelligent, capable and accomplished we might be, most of us have never trained in how to navigate the emotional roller coaster that even the most insignificant conflicts can trigger.

For most of us, the more our wisdom, courage and creativity are required in the midst of a problem or crisis, the more we usually end up doing the exact opposite – contracting, losing perspective, closing our hearts, and responding with knee jerk reactions that we inevitably regret.

Over time most of us end up avoiding conflict altogether because we believe that no good can come of it, which is completely understandable. Because the more deeply we
enter a potential confrontation or danger, the more we are hard wired to shut down any extraneous faculties, and use the oldest (and least sophisticated) parts of our brain to survive. Maintaining our higher functions in the midst of a conflict often feels like the ultimate contortion. Like opening your heart and smiling into an oncoming truck. It just feels wrong.

Yet more than ever we’re being called to dramatically improve the way we engage in conflict so that instead of contracting we’re able to expand. Instead of regressing, we’re able to evolve. To do otherwise risks:

  • Failed partnerships

  • A secretive, emotionally toxic environment

  • Leaders unable to remain cool under pressure

  • Chronic problems that are never resolved

  • Compromised financial and organizational security

  • Low grade stress and illness

 

And just to be clear: life is a full-contact sport. If you’re not experiencing some form of conflict on a regular basis then you’re probably either “playing it safe” or simply “checked out.”

Whatever the reason, your inability to engage in conflict productively will usually be the result of two underlying causes:

  • You believe that conflict is “bad” and something to avoid.
  • You have never been trained how to “Conflict Productively” and as a result, are afraid of getting it “wrong.”

These causes, although understandable, remain somewhat misinformed. For conflict, by it’s very nature, is a creative process. It’s simply life’s way of saying: It’s time for a change.

When we avoid conflict we are only ever ignoring a relationship that is naturally asking to be improved. We are pushing aside an opportunity to upgrade a dynamic that wants (often desperately) to be made better.

What is Your Conflict Style?

The four main conflict styles that most of us fall into are:

Fight                                                                                                            Flight

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Accommodation

 

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Freeze

 

 

 

 

 

 

In many business environments a classic example of this might be a boss whose personal conflict style is Fight, causing colleagues and co-workers around them to perpetually fall into Accommodation. The downside being that that when we regularly exhibit the conflict style of Fight the first thing we sacrifice is truth. Those around us, especially if we are in a position of authority, will rarely feel secure to share transparently. This will result in a secrecy and mis-communication.

Equally if we are in a management position and exhibit the conflict style of Accommodation we will have difficulty holding our ground and standing up for what we believe in. The result may be a feeling of overwhelm because we are incapable of maintaining our boundaries, and of saying “no”.

If this style is deep rooted we may even rationalize to ourselves that we are simply “easy going” or like to “go with the flow” when the truth is that we are simply unable to make a stand and speak our mind.

When Conflict Styles Interact

When conflict styles are engaged simultaneously, the process of unravelling them can be both illuminating and liberating. Take for example, Richard and Elizabeth; team members who regularly found themselves in conflict.

Richards personal conflict style was to get angry and push back, and if the conflict went on for too long, he would get passive aggressive, walk away and leave.

Elizabeth on the other hand, would go into shock, dig her heels in, and refuse to budge from her position, but if the conflict went on for too long, she would explode, giving Richard an earful and expressing herself in ways that she always later regretted. In full swing their dynamic was the following:

Richard would Fight, causing Elizabeth to Freeze, which cause Richard to Fight harder, which would eventually trigger Elizabeth to Fight too, which would then cause Richard to Flight leaving it up to one of them to eventually cool down, take the mature position, and attempt to pacify the situation through

Accommodation, which was really just another way of saying Compromise.

Obviously they knew they could do better.

But the challenge in any conflict situation is not only to break out of the “spell” of conflict, but resolve it in a way that isn’t simply superficial and short lived. To help accomplish this four questions can be asked.

Six Conflict Questions

In the midst of such a vicious cycle there are four Conflict Questions which can be asked at any moment to help result in a more productive outcome quickly.

The questions are:

1. What emotion are you feeling?
2. What conflict style are you currently in?
3. What is your conflict style hiding?
4. What does your conflict style want, and need
5. What is the conflict really about?
6. Who is most responsible for resolving this conflict?

Question 1 ~ What Emotion are you Feeling?

Are you feeling Anger? Fear? Shock? Sadness? The desire to please? It doesn’t matter what you feel, what matters is that you are able to clearly identify and articulate it. So take a moment to feel inside you, identify the feeling, and name the emotion.

Question 2 ~ What Conflict Style are You Currently in?

Once you have identified which emotion that you are feeling, name the Conflict Style that most exemplifies it. Sometimes it may not be that obvious. For example if you are being calmly assertive you may be surprised to know that you are in Fight. Equally if you think that you’re relaxed and not interested in conflict, you might be in Flight. If you feel nothing and are feeling “flat” you may be surprised to discover that you’re actually in Freeze. So take a moment to see which style you are in.

Question 3 – What is Your Conflict Style Hiding?

Now that you have identified what Conflict Style you are in, the deeper truth of the situation can begin to emerge. Because underneath every Conflict Style, underneath every emotion that has been triggered, is usually another that it is hiding. One that it is attempting to cover up because it feels that it is incapable of feeling it fully.

For example when someone is taken over by the Conflict style of Fight, although they may appear to those around them as being angry, intimidating, perhaps even threatening, underneath this anger is usually a sense of weakness and vulnerability. Our move into anger is often simply a coping mechanism to avoid feeling that vulnerability fully. The Conflict Style of Fight is often simply our powerlessness denied.

Likewise the Conflict Style of Freeze may appear on the surface to be a resisting, or unwillingness to engage constructively. But underneath that, a “Freezer” is usually someone who simply feels that they are in danger, and that whoever they are in conflict with cannot be trusted. As a result they have to remain still and quiet, so that the danger will pass. Knowing this allows those around them to work more effectively in helping them to trust the situation (and themselves) and break out of their Freeze pattern so that they take more ownership of the conflict, and engage with it constructively.

Question 4 ~ What Does Your Conflict Style Want and Need?

Once you have established the deeper features of your conflict styles a natural fourth question emerges: what is your conflict style really asking for? What does it want and need.

Addressing what a conflict style “wants” allows an individual to find more space within that style. It is what we give to them to help them work with their style. For example in Fight, we often want to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be taken seriously, to be respected.

On the other hand, what a conflict style ‘needs” is what they must give to us in return. It is the work they must do on their own. For example while “Fighters” usually want respect and to be heard, what they need is to learn is the ability to control themselves, cool down at will, and understand how to exert their power more gracefully.

Likewise, underneath the shock of Freeze is usually an inability to trust. “Freezers” often want peace and to see that others can control themselves (such as Fighters), but what they usually need is to grow an internal fortitude and fluidity so that they can stand in the fire of conflict and bear it without feeling overwhelmed.

Similarly, under the excessive acquiescence of Accommodation is often a fear of not being liked. “Accommodators” often want for everyone to get along and to behave with civility, but what they usually need is to marshal the courage to take a stand, speak their truth, and accept that conflict is essential to creativity.

Question 5 ~ What is the conflict really about?

No conflict ever stands alone. It is always standing on the shoulders of previous conflicts. We are never engaging in conflict about this one thing. We are never only angry because of this single instance. When we are taken over by our Self Preservation Instinct (SPI) we are bringing our entire history of conflict with us. This is why even the most trivial problems can escalate so quickly. Our Conflict Styles are ruts, deep grooves in our Physical, Psychological, Emotional and Neurological hard wiring that we have practiced for years. In every conflict that we engage in we are literally compounding and reinforcing our Conflict Style for the umpteenth time. This is why breaking the spell of our SPI can be so challenging. We are attempting to rewire a habit that we have been practicing since childhood.

Who is Most Responsible for Resolving this Conflict?

In the midst of a conflict there is always one party who is less “charged” than the other, always one who has more clarity, consciousness, and is less under the “spell” of their SPI. In the context of Productive Conflict whoever this is always has more responsibility in resolving the conflict. This includes having more responsibility in assisting others to bring more flexibility and creativity to their conflict styles, and in bringing the conflict to a healthy resolution.

When people first hear this they can often find themselves objecting. “But if they’re the angry one, then they should have to pull themselves together!” Well, yes they do. But the chances of them doing this on their own, without help, is always going to take longer, and be more challenging. For this reason whoever is more overtaken by their SPI has less responsibility to resolve the conflict simply because they have less tools at their disposal, less clarity to see with, less consciousness to “play” with.

Once we have begun to understand and feel the different dimensions and deeper
truths of our Conflict Styles, we can begin to move with this energy more easily the way an Aikido Teacher rolls with a punch. We can go from a fight to an art, and ultimately from an art to a dance, where conflict begins to transform into something completely different, and the fun really begins.

Training In Productive Conflict

There is an old saying that we don’t rise to the challenge, we simply default to our level of training. Learning the skills of Productive Conflict is no different, and not something that we can do alone. Yes, we can prepare for it by learning the theory, but what really makes the difference, what really assists us in waking up from the “spell” of our own Personal Conflict Pattern is a life-fire, in the moment training that literally “embodies” a new way of being within us.

For at the heart of this training is a fundamental paradigm shift from seeing conflict as something to avoid, to seeing it as a wisdom that simply wants to make things better. Making this part of your “muscle memory” is the only way to assure that when conflict inevitably arises, you have the courage to feel the heat, and the skills to navigate through it, already conditioned within you.

In This Training Learn:

  1. What your conflict style is and how it is helping, and limiting you.
  2. How to bring more leadership, clarity and empowerment to the conflicts that you findyourself in, no matter how subtle or insignificant.
  3. How to “wake up” in the most intense of conflicts.
  4. How to transform into “eruptions” of innovation and creativity.

 

Copyright, Zachary Feder, 2014.