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Conflict Resolution

The Importance of Healthy Conflict

Chances are, you’ve been involved in conflict at some point in the past, often finding its root in one of these:

  • something that someone didn’t do that someone thinks they should have
  • something that someone did that someone thinks they shouldn’t have done
  • something that two people perceive differently
  • something that two people care about to different degrees

If you stop for just a minute and think through these topics, you’ll find that while we can point to full-scale wars that erupted when one group invaded the land of another, we can also point to differences of opinion that enrich our lives without adding distress. For instance, he prefers the edge pieces, I prefer the middle, and so our difference of opinion allows us to share a pan of brownies perfectly well.  

When we start talking about workplace conflict, those, too, can be full-scale turf wars or minor differences of opinion. Conflict, in and of itself, isn’t bad. However, healthy conflict makes for better work days than unhealthy conflict.


What is healthy conflict?

Before we discuss what healthy conflict is, let’s look at what it’s not. Healthy conflict doesn’t involve tearing people down, belittling them, or pitting one person against another. Healthy conflict doesn’t demand that it is right. Healthy conflict does not keep score or record of wrongs, nor does it demand retribution or getting even.  

Rather, healthy conflict is all about confidence paired with humility, and it taps into our emotional intelligence. It’s okay, good even, to be confident in your ideas, opinions, expectations, etc., as long as it doesn’t turn into overconfidence. If you are overconfident, it can cause a blindness to the ideas, opinions, values and expectations of others. However, when your confidence is paired with humility, you can learn to take a step back and perceive from another’s point of view. 

In other words, you can approach conflict with empathy, an aspect of our emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict. It all goes hand in hand. 

So, the next time you are faced with conflict in the workplace, tap into your emotional intelligence: manage your emotions to communicate your thoughts effectively, empathize with the other person to see it from their perspective, and defuse the unhealthy conflict. 

Additionally, you can view conflict as an opportunity to build and strengthen your relationships. When you are able to resolve conflict in a constructive, supportive way, it grows trust and respect within your relationships.  Healthy conflict can foster creativity in problem-solving, and the feeling of freedom and safety to express ideas, opinions, and expectations without retribution. This is useful in the workplace, especially as a leader. 


How Do I Apply This?

Think back to those examples of situations at the beginning; how do you go about resolving that conflict in a healthy way?
  1. Think you’re facing something that someone didn’t do, that you think they should have done?  Instead of being absolutely sure that they should have done it and they just didn’t, maybe try a dose of curiosity.  Am I just not seeing the results I was expecting? Am I maybe not looking in the place they actually left it? Often, conflict stems from a lack of understanding or assuming you have a full understanding when you don't. The best practice is approaching with an open conversation, beginning with questions rather than accusations, and with the goal of understanding. From that understanding, an action plan for completing this thing where both parties feel comfortable and empowered, can be built.

  2. Faced with someone having done something you think they shouldn’t have done? Instead of being frustrated that they did it, maybe step into what the situation might have looked like from where they were standing.  Why might they have felt they needed to do it?  Did I leave something uncommunicated or un-done that they needed? Maybe they foresaw a risk that had not been assessed yet, and it will actually benefit everyone in the long run. Tap into your emotional intelligence and try to view the situation from their perspective. Have a conversation and gain an understanding of their motive before you misjudge it. 

  3. Looking at something that someone else sees so differently?  Instead of buckling down and insisting that they see it your way, try seeking to understand theirs.  Why do they feel the way they feel? What led them to that perspective? In this process, you also learn more about the person and deepen your relationship. The why of something often matters more than the what. When trying to understand, why they see it that way is more important than what they see. Learning the why also benefits your emotional intelligence. You would be able to answer the questions: how will they perceive this? How will their perception impact their motive and motivation? Do I need to adjust my message accordingly?

  4. Discovering that someone else cares way more (or way less) about something than you do?  Imagine that level of caring to be like layers of a blanket that you can pull on or pull off. Try pulling on or off layers to see how it feels from their level of caring, and determine what you can learn from that exercise. Do they care way less, and are not doing enough? How can you help them care more, and produce at the level that match your expectations? Do they care way more, and thus are doing more in pursuing that goal? How can you praise their initiative or eagerness and help guide their effort? Could you care more and do more? 

This list is by no means exhaustive; conflict is tricky and inevitable. Again, most often, conflict stems from misunderstanding or a lack thereof. Communicating effectively and approaching conflict with empathy, with the goal of understanding is the best practice for conflict resolution. 

Remember, not all conflict is detrimental, in fact, some conflict is necessary for progress. The key is not letting unhealthy conflict get in the way of the healthy kind. How will you tap into your emotional intelligence and resolve conflict?


Topics: Sinikka Waugh, Communication & Collaboration, Leadership & Influence

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!








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