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5 Steps to Producing Productive Conflict

Conflict is an inevitable part of life, especially one’s professional life, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. When a conflict arises or things become heated a person may tend to think, “Why can’t everyone just get along?” That is okay; that is a natural thought process, but it is not one that will move things forward or lead to progress. Conflict situations can be used to make things better, to improve processes, and to take teams to places they could not have fathomed going to before the conflict occurred.

In just five steps, conflict can turn from a perceived negative to an essential tool of successful production, leading you to wonder how you ever lived without it in your professional life. Note that last part: this is exclusively for your professional life. I take no responsibility if you try this in a personal relationship. Why? Because personal relationships require more emotion, a history among all parties involved, and dynamics that are nonexistent in professional situations.

The Basics

First, let us come to a consensus on some basic definitive statements regarding conflict.

Conflict stems from a difference in opinions and involves strong emotions.

There are both productive and destructive behaviors that become evident regardless of the conflict at hand.

As stated previously, conflict is inevitable.

There are times when the situation will be brief, explosive, subtle, long-term, or everything in-between.

Sometimes you will not even recognize a conflict exists until you are knee-deep in it. It improves results (no, really!).

Individuals or teams must move forward, beyond the negative, to make conflict positive -- to produce productive, collaborative, team-oriented, successful results.

The Steps

1. Identify Your Proclivity

Look internally first. How do you react to a conflict situation? What is your innate response? Think about conflict in general, think about conflict in certain situations, think about conflict with particular individuals/teams. Does it scare you? Exhilarate you? Do you welcome it? Fear it? Initiate it? Avoid it at all costs? Assess yourself to get a grasp on your true thoughts about conflict.

2. Recognize the Automatic Response

Now that you've explored your natural born tendencies toward conflict, figure out your automatic response. This is your initial or "knee-jerk" reaction, and will fluctuate with each conflict scenario. There is unlikely one sole initial reaction to any conflict situation. Depending on the factors involved, you may get angry or back down. You may think someone is trying to politic you or trying to one-up you in the face of your superiors. There are a bevy of choices that are situation specific. The key is identifying your responses so you can advance to Step 3.

3. Find the Destructive Behavioral Tendency

After recognizing your automatic response to the conflict at hand, you have the ability to determine exactly when and how your reaction can lead to destruction (if not cautious). At what point do you start to enter your dark place, a destination that threatens all likelihood that conflict will be productive? It is this exact location which causes people to get caught up in emotion. Unable to see past their own views, individuals cease listening to others and make subconscious assumptions such as, “I am right, and I am going to prove that I am right no matter what!” Now, that does not sound like a very productive phrase. It will certainly not move you forward or promote future success. Recognizing destructive behavior is a significant step toward intervention.

4. Re-frame the Interaction

If you can catch yourself and recognize when others are moving toward the dark place, it will all become easier. Take a step back from the interaction, re-frame your automatic responsive thought and shift conflict into a potentially productive place. Ask yourself, "Is my thought true/valid?" "Am I overreacting?" "Are we exaggerating?" "Is there another way of looking at this?" Then, continue on with the conflict. Your goal here is to move things forward, to take those individuals involved on a journey toward enlightenment and collective results.

5. Produce Collective Success

Now is the time to formulate a productive response. Use your newly re-framed thought to create a pathway for all involved. Imagine you are Dorothy and this part of the process is the Yellow Brick Road. What is at the end of the road? The Emerald City, which, in this case, represents collaborative, successful results. Achieving such results is not always easy and there are a number of more difficult behavioral strategies that could be employed, which will be touched upon in a later article. Some of these strategies you may find easy whereas others you may find difficult, but that is okay. Creating conflict that is productive is not always a simple task. Do the best you can to assess the situation and select the best option at your disposal. Always remember the ultimate goal: to move the conflict to a productive space for all involved.

The Conflict Helped!

Utilize the above Steps to alter the outcome of a conflict situation from destructive to productive. These are not mediation or negotiation tactics. The focus is not simply on ceasing conflict. Rather, the goal is to turn the very nature of the conflict into something positive that moves productivity forward. This process could create new innovation. It could bring you to a place you never realized you were headed. These Steps will invariably lead to improvements in your company, your teams, your workplace relationships, and your collaborative efforts.

When applied correctly, the above Steps will serve as a reminder that conflict is not a scary thing. It is inevitable. It is a fact of professional life. It is essential to any organization that strives for success. It is necessary. It is productive.

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