Priscila is the CEO of LifeLabs Learning, a global leader in manager training for technology, financial services and healthcare companies.
Most people see conflict at work as dangerous or at the very least unpleasant. For example, in the U.S. alone, roughly 400,000 people die every year due to medical errors. One of the leading causes of these unnecessary deaths? The fear of speaking up to flag physician mistakes. Medical staff often stand by and watch doctors make mistakes because avoiding conflict is safer.
So, whether the goal of your workplace is to save lives or to achieve any important outcome in a high-pressure setting, getting conflict right matters. But it’s not enough to just encourage people to challenge one another. It’s also critical to have high conflict competency. The good news is that it’s possible to increase conflict competency faster.
Peter Coleman and his team at Columbia University interviewed 149 expert conflict mediators to identify the three most important contributors to successful conflict outcomes: (1) intensity, (2) structure, and (3) transparency. At LifeLabs Learning, we’ve gotten to study our own supergroup of 2,000-plus clients to spot the skills and systems that bring these three key factors to life:
1. Conflict Intensity: Lower Is Better
Our brains perceive the same message content differently depending on the conversation tone. In general, lower intensity conflict results in faster and more satisfying resolutions.
Go Down The Escalator
Someone brings up a critique and your heart rate spikes. You bring up a concern and notice your voice tighten. These cues are all signs of conflict intensity escalating. The skill? Catch yourself on the way up and gently guide yourself “down the escalator.” Silently name what you’re feeling—a practice called “affective labeling.” Then take a deep breath, and picture yourself going down a physical escalator or elevator. If the intensity of the moment is too high, ask for a timeout. For example: “I’m noticing that I’m not in the right state of mind for this conversation and want to address it thoughtfully. Can we try it again in an hour?”
Surprise is an emotion intensifier. When conflict catches us off guard, emotional intensity increases and our receptivity to learning decreases. Emotional intensity is also impacted by novelty. The less often we experience conflict, the scarier it feels. To reduce surprise and increase comfort with conflict, schedule ritualized retros. Our favorite retro questions: “What went well [with this case/patient/project/week]? What was particularly good about how we communicated? How could we have communicated better? What is one thing we want to try doing differently next time?”
2. The More Shared Goals The Better
The toughest conflicts are win-lose scenarios. The good news is that co-workers naturally have shared goals (even if that’s not always obvious). The more people feel they can both benefit from a resolution, the easier it is to reach.
Use An ‘Us vs. The Problem’ Frame
Even when our shared goals should be obvious (e.g., excellent patient care, delighted customers), conflict can strike a false sense of opposition in our brains. Skillful communicators notice this frame happening and articulate a clear “us vs. the problem” reframe. For example: “Okay, so we both want this client to sign with us and have two different ideas for how to make that happen. What would be a good way to explore both options to find the approach that works best for us?” Or: “We all want to avoid layoffs but need to cut costs. How should we decide which cuts make the most sense based on our goals?”
On a team or organizational level, ensure employee goals are aligned. If only the person who pitches the winning idea gets credit or only the salesperson who closes a deal gets a bonus, the system sets people up for destructive rather than constructive conflict. Shine a light on successful collaborations internally to underscore that working together grows the pie rather than leaving anyone pie-less. Nobody should have to miss out on pie.
3. Conflict Transparency: More Is Better
Conflict is much easier to put to good use when the purpose and process of the conflict are clear. The more visibility people have into each other’s needs, and the more clarity there is about how to discuss them, the easier it is to get to a resolution quickly.
LifeLabs Learning has studied what differentiates the best communicators, especially in high-pressure situations. We’ve found one micro-behavior in common: great communicators “deblur” confusing or ambiguous information. Deblurring can look like the following: “I’m noticing that the goal of this decision might be blurry. What do you see as the goal?” Or: “So that I can understand, would you share what’s important to you about that?” Or: “When you say we’re running out of time, what timeline do you have in mind?”
Create Conflict Norms
Take the guesswork out of how employees should handle conflict by co-creating conflict norms. Particularly when we work across cultures and generations, it pays to make implicit expectations about conflict explicit. For example: “Before we decide, let’s each go around and share one perspective we might not have considered.” Or: “If someone disagrees with you, ask questions before you debate.” Or: “If you have feedback for someone, go directly to the source.”
So, the next time your brain tells you to see conflict as a threat, remember that there’s a bigger danger lurking in our workplaces: conflict avoidance. To create constructive conflict, keep it low intensity, focus on shared goals and be transparent about the purpose and process of the conflict. It may just help you save a life, a business, a relationship or—at the very least—some time.