Conflict 101: Between Two Views

Conflict is not a bad thing. In professional communication, where we work with others to create something together, the friction that comes from conflict is often essential. 

If everyone thinks the same and shares the same perspective, there isn’t much need for communication at all. When everyone is on the same page, communication becomes mechanical: We just need to share bits of information, and discussions are rarely required. I don’t know of any team or project where there is total alignment 100% of the time, and there’s a good reason for that. 

When we assemble a team with the goal of co-creating, having different views, perspectives, interpretations, and ideas is an engine that drives us forward. Conflict can create creative tension and lead us in ways we didn’t expect. That’s the magic of working together with people who are different from each other. Diverse teams with different perspectives and experiences are more likely to succeed. 

But like any engine, it has to be balanced. When conflict is not controlled, it might cause us to stand in place or worse. So, while conflict is both inevitable and desired, we must ensure it leads to something positive and doesn’t escalate or remain static for long. 

As a Process Manager, I often encounter conflict. Every stakeholder in the process has their own views and ideas, and sometimes, they have different missions altogether. In the past, I thought of any conflict as a setback. Today, I recognize that conflict can nurture great outcomes when managed effectively — much like fertilizer helps plants grow. Our goal should not be to avoid conflict but to harness it to achieve better results. 

In the next few days, we’ll discuss several steps to help us navigate and build upon conflict. Today, we’ll focus on an aspect we tend to forget, but it is essential that we start with it when approaching any apparent conflict: understanding what everyone is saying. 

When two views seem to conflict, our instinct is to focus on where they collide. Our mind is drawn to where the energy is: where the two views create friction. However, as often is the case in communication, there’s a chance we don’t truly understand each of the views. Had we understood them better, the conflict would have been easier to resolve or would not have even existed at all. 

Here’s an example I keep running into whenever there’s an opportunity to refine a business process. Some managers would say, “We need to work faster.” Others would argue that “we need to work better.” At the outset, this seems like the ancient conflict between quality and quantity. The common perception is that these two goals are in constant tension, so if each manager pushes in a different direction, we are in conflict. Sometimes, we are, but not always. 

The first thing I typically do as I face these two allegedly contradicting goals is to understand each of them deeply. What does it mean to work better? What does it mean to push for more quality? What does it mean to work faster and achieve more? These terms that seem contradictory can mean different things to different people. To communicate effectively, let alone manage a potential conflict, we must understand what the people who use these terms actually mean. 

When I ask managers what they mean by working faster, they often point out that their teams spend too much time backtracking and fixing things. From a quantity perspective, this is an obvious setback. Each such problem causes rework, and instead of delivering something new, you redeliver something that should have already worked. Put differently, these managers who say we need to work faster actually mean we need to do things well the first time and prevent problems instead of fixing them in retrospect. To me, this sounds exactly like improving the quality of our work: working better. 

If you think this is a rare example, think again. Not every conflict will automatically be resolved by better understanding the different views, but many will. We often forget that what we know and think is not automatically apparent to the other side. When people use the word “faster,” they might have a very clear view of what this means, but the people they have the conversation with are likely to hear something completely different. 

The only way to start harnessing a conflict for growth is to ensure everyone understands each other, whether they agree or not. Some conflicts will be resolved as soon as this happens. Many others will still require work, but this work will be directed to the actual points of friction instead of the ones that just seem to be in contrast.

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