Next time you disagree with a co-worker, a neighbor, or your mother-in-law, pat yourself on the back. You’re doing your part to help save humanity.
That’s because the delicate push-pull involved in resolving a challenge — i.e., engaging in productive conflict — is what moves our society forward. That’s right. Our human capacity for multilayered emotional conflict lets us go beyond the binary sets of ones and zeros that robots rely on exclusively. It’s our competitive advantage over the AI technology vying for our jobs. It’s our most-valuable asset as humans. It helps us grow.
But it can also be pretty damned uncomfortable, especially at work.
So, how can we harness the power of conflict without facing the emotional anxiety that comes with it? Well, sorry, friend. You can’t. However! You can train yourself to internally process the anxiety in a different way and to externally manage the conflict more productively.
Being Cool With Conflict
Here are four strategies that I use with my clients and their teams to help them find ease in moments that might at first seem seriously uncomfortable. As always, the key is communication — and in this case, it’s usually the ongoing conversation you have with yourself.
Avoid zero-sum logic. Being the high-achieving professionals that they are, my clients often want a clear “yes” or “no” answer to their questions. (After all, this type of linear thinking has served them well in academia and their careers so far.) Unfortunately, life is messy. Fortunately, messy is where magic happens. So, don’t close yourself off to the real power of possibility by searching for a one-sided response to a multi-sided question.
Get comfy in your discomfort. Similarly, don’t panic at the first sign of trouble. Take a page out of the mindfulness handbook by observing your feelings with detachment, trusting that you’ll survive, and letting things pass without tying yourself in emotional knots. This exercise is cumulative: The more you practice being uncomfortable, the stronger you’ll be when discomfort comes a-knocking. Toleration is very much a learned behavior.
Be vulnerable — in moderation. Vulnerability is a trendy topic right now. But in the case of productive conflict, vulnerability helps your colleagues see you as self-aware enough to admit imperfection, so that they can feel free to offer up their ideas without fear of immediate rejection. The only caveat here is that, unlike in a personal relationship, vulnerability in the workplace should be limited — showing your imperfections, but not gross incompetence.
Carve out time for free thinking. Help yourself and your organization understand the benefits of productive conflict by encouraging scheduled time for creative brainstorming. Group workshops are best, so that you can build off each other’s ideas and practice nonjudgmental vulnerability. Ask a question like, “If we had unlimited time and money, what would make our team more effective?” In my experience leading team-building workshops, there’s always at least one idea that’s usable, and sometimes even multiple ideas.
To grow as professionals — and to beat the automation invasion — we need to get out of our heads and into new ways of thinking. Uncomfortable? Probably. Unproductive? I don’t know — I’m only human. You’ll have to ask Alexa.