Healthy vs. Unhealthy Conflict
You will read this often in my posts - conflict is inevitable.
Humans are intelligent and diverse. We all have different interests, needs, wants, likes, and dislikes. Conflict is defined as incompatible interests between two or more people. Therefore, without conflict there would not be the beautiful diversity we have.
So, if you can't avoid it, what can you do about it?
There are different types of conflict; one way to look at it is healthy vs. unhealthy. Which conflicts are worth your time and effort, and which ones aren't? Being able to identify which conflicts are healthy, and engaging in productive disagreement is an important skill. In the workplace it can lead to excellent problem solving, improved motivation, and increased confidence. In personal relationships healthy and productive conflict can lead to increased trust and a closer bond.
Healthy Conflict A healthy conflict is one based on mutual respect with a goal of improving the situation for everyone.
What does mutual respect look like in conflict?
That everyone involved has the space, ability, and support to express their thoughts and ideas without being belittled or bullied. In my mediation sessions I like to explain this as brainstorming to solve a problem; there is no idea too wild as it may lead to the perfect solution for their unique situation. Blame, shame, and teasing has no place in a healthy conflict.
What does it mean to want to improve the situation for everyone when in conflict?
Naturally, when we are faced with a conflict humans tend to go into fight or flight mode. We either avoid the conflict or we decide to fight to win. I'm here to let you know that everyone involved can win! When everyone's goal is to understand the other people's positions better, then you can engage in healthy conflict. This looks like asking open questions (ones that start with what/who/where/when/why) and actually listening to the response (hint: listening is the hard part!).
Unhealthy conflict is one based on a goal I win, you lose and is aggressive in nature.
What does it look like when the goal is I win, you lose?
When each person is talking at the other instead of to the other, it is likely their goal is to win. That individual is not listening to the others to gain understanding, instead they typically go back into their own head after asking a question to formulate the perfect response. If anyone in the conflict is trying to convince the other person of their position, instead of focusing on understanding and being understood, their goal is to win. The outcome may be the ideal outcome for one of the parties, and when people reach that outcome with understanding instead of bullying and convincing the relationship is improved along with the situation.
What is a conflict that is aggressive in nature?
Aggressive behaviour in conflict is mostly easily identified:
- name calling
Aggressive behaviour can also be subtle, so it is important to take breaks and check in with yourself during a conflict. Ask yourself how you're feeling: inspired and heard or nervous and misunderstood? Subtle aggressive behaviour can leave you feeling nervous and misunderstood; if you find you're feeling that way look for some of these clues:
- fear based conversation ("if this doesn't happen a certain way, I know that something bad will happen")
- triangulation ("so-and-so agrees with me")
- using power-over technique ("I have superiority and the final say")
It is also good to take breaks to check in with yourself and your own behaviour. Are you hungry or thirsty? Are you tired (physically or mentally) and need a break? All of these factors can lead to unintentional aggressive behaviour. All is not lost if you identify any of this in yourself; I have seen amazing progress in mediations when one person is able to come back to the table and say "I recognize my behaviour last time was not appropriate, this time I need more breaks to snack on something so that I can focus on what is important."
So, what should you do when you identify an unhealthy conflict that you can't turn into a healthy one?
Weigh the importance of the relationship with the other person in the conflict.
If you care enough about the relationship to want to keep it or you can't completely cut ties with this person (ie. you have children with them, you work together, etc.) bring in a professional third party to assist. This is where mediation works the best.
If the other person does not hold much importance in your life and you're not stuck with them, walking away is always an option.
What are some things you have identified in a healthy or unhealthy conflict?
What are some strategies you can implement in your next conflict to make it a healthy one?