You cringe. Your face flushes—your stomach acid churns. Maybe you avoid it at all costs, believing that it will magically disappear if you ignore it. You can try, but conflict is unavoidable. We are surrounded by change, and change often leads to conflict, especially in the work environment.
Why is conflict something that elicits such a visceral and emotional response? Why might we view it as destructive to professional and personal aims, when conflict can, in fact, be used as a tool of growth and development?
The reason stems from how conflict is registered in our brain. “Our personal histories are tied to emotional and pleasure centers,” explains QLI’s Director of Psychological Services Jeff Snell. “We incorporate our experiences and histories in a way that pushes us to avoid conflict so as not to incite negative emotions.”
Additionally, true objectivity is difficult to attain when handling conflict. Because of these predetermined biases, we do not think objectively, but rather see these situations through a subjective lens. “If you and I were in conflict, we would first have to come to an agreement on the nature of the conflict,” says Dr. Snell. “We would need to do this because we are approaching the situation from two different brains with differing emotional goals and aims.”
Any change to our day-to-day routines strikes deep at the emotional and irrational part of our subconscious. As a result, stress levels begin to rise, resulting in the increase of the chemical cortisol. “This chemical tends to have a negative impact on brain function as it is a stress hormone,” says Dr. Snell. “When cortisol levels are high in stressful situations, we don’t tend to make as rational or logical of decisions as when we are not as stressed.”
So, what can be done to mitigate subconscious impulses and irrationality? Dr. Snell advises a building of bodily awareness, namely noticing what our body language looks like during conflict. “There are many exercises involved in alleviating stress,” says Dr. Snell. “Slow, rhythmic breathing is one way to relax in a conflictual situation, and it is also important to consider progressive muscle relaxation, where you move through the muscles of the body, understanding how it feels to tense up that particular muscle group, then focus on feeling what it is like what that same group is relaxed. The goal is to automatically apply these checks, so our physical and emotional reaction to conflict lessens. With increased awareness to our body’s unconscious response, we are better equipped to handle it appropriately, calmly, and more rationally.”
“If we learn to reframe conflict as a positive experience,” says QLI’s CEO Patricia Kearns, “it can become a path forward towards a pursuit of professional development rather than the roadblock we might initially perceive it to be.” Perception is key, as is knowing ourselves and our goals. We like to see that our actions, our judgments, and our situational awareness allow us to become well-rounded personally, professionally, and relationally.
From the leadership of founding QLI CEO Dr. Kim Hoogeveen came an understanding of the different types of conflict and what each type aims to resolve:
- Factual-Oriented Conflict: Can the issue in question be resolved with a Google search or fact check?
- Goal-Oriented Conflict: The “what.” What is the singular point that the group is working towards?
- Method-Oriented Conflict: The “how.” Once the goal is established, how will that goal be achieved?
- Value-Oriented Conflict: These concern the personal beliefs we hold. It often results from polarizing differences on topics such as religion or politics.
Once the type of conflict is established, it becomes easier to break it down and get to a point of collaboration and solutions rather than an emotional reaction. More often than not, collaboration is a tool for method- and goal-oriented conflict, and perhaps the most commonly encountered in a professional environment.
The polarizing nature of value-oriented conflict can be more complicated to resolve. While important to have discussions that stem from these differences in personal beliefs, they are best held once a strengthened relational foundation has been established through method- and goal-oriented conflict. If a sense of trust and collaboration is securely in place, it is significantly less likely for the conflict to cause further damage to the relationship. Sometimes when we are in conflict with someone, we may not have an established relationship with them. In these moments, it is always a good measure to include a mediator, someone like a mutual friend or coworker who has a foundation with both parties and can provide nuanced guidance towards a resolution.
Equally important is making decisions based on facts rather than our emotions and implicit biases. Ask yourself what potential preconceptions are at play in the conflict. Has your objectivity been skewed against another due to their beliefs? Is there even the most microscopic feeling of professional jealousy or perhaps a long-standing personality clash?
Put biases aside and focus on building understanding. Only then can we place ourselves in the right direction to reach a positive resolution.
“When you work through professional conflict with someone, you may be laying the foundation for more positive outcomes in future conflicts,” says Kearns. “Even if you do not have an established relationship with them, you now have a shared experience from which to draw.”
Conflicts are nuanced but they do not need to be a barrier. So stop avoiding. Stop conceding to keep the peace. Take a deep breath and embrace conflict as an opportunity for better solutions and deeper connections.