Managing Productive Conflict

I know most of you regularly read the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health so forgive me if I repeat something you already know here. (Actually, I don’t read it either…it was a citation in a Bloomberg News story). Anyway, a group of researchers from Sweden found that those who suppress their anger in the workplace are more likely to suffer from heart attack or die from heart disease. Especially among men, the act of simply walking away or trying to ignore an anger-inducing event can be detrimental to long-term heart health it seems. So, of course, those who have reported on this story suggest that rather than walking away, the cause of the anger should be confronted fairly quickly and directly.

Anger  This is not the first study that has made the link between concealed strong emotions and stress-related illness. It makes sense. If I am frustrated at work and nothing happens to relieve this frustration, then all of the physiological (and psychological) symptoms of stress will eventually have their toll. However, the point is not to share the fact that you are angry. The point is to deal with, and remove or offset, the stressor.

There is an entire generation or so that believes that health comes from the free expression of emotions. It is almost an entitlement belief—I have this emotion, I have a right to this emotion, and I have the right to share this emotion with you. This is a very limited solution and has great potential to backfire. Expressing a negative emotion, whether it is frustration, annoyance, disbelief and the like, is almost guaranteed to provoke a negative response in the receiver. Focusing on your emotion alone creates an environment of blame and, while you may think you feel better in the end, it is rarely productive.

An alternative is to “own” your emotion but express your concern and issue. By owning how I feel about something I am recognizing that it is not YOU who made me feel this way. Your behavior has prompted something in ME that makes me feel this way, but you aren’t the holder of my emotions. You may, however, be the source—or part of the source—of the problem. With productive conflict and respectful confrontation, you can relate to your boss, peers or employees that you are angry or unhappy or upset. But more importantly, you need to address the activities, behaviors or outcomes that are prompting stress for you.

It is easier to describe productive conflict than it is to actually do it, but here is what it looks like:

1. Dialogue rather than debate. The purpose of the conversation is not to win the conversation but to come to a mutual understanding about the issues and the consequences of those issues (for example…your anger, disappointment, whatever).

2. Describing rather than dramatizing. Unleashing emotions is often an attack mode that provokes a defense and personal response. Describing your stressor in terms of what it is or Feedback Discussion  what the other person is doing makes it possible sometimes to defuse the highly charged energy around a topic long enough to make headway on getting it solved.

3. Collaboration versus competition. The way we chose to express our concerns is often as if we need to “win” the conversation. Winning usually means the other person has seen the “truth” and admitted that they are wrong. This approach does nothing for changing the culture to one of greater engagement in general. Collaboration, on the other hand, assumes that we are both interested in solving the issue without humiliating each other.

While these ideas are easy to read, they are difficult to put into place if they are not habitual already. The way to start is to decide one thing…for example, collaboration versus competition. Check yourself when you find that you are making a simple matter a competition. Take a minute just to reflect on whether or not this is how it should be. Small changes can make big differences.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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