Are you conflict phobic? 7 steps to mine conflict for growth

Fears and phobias are so well understood that we seem have a name for every version, even phobophobia(the fear of fear) itself. Naming and labelling fears and anxieties is a powerful mechanism that helps manage down threat from uncertainty (see the SCARF model), yet there is one highly prevalent fear that remains unnamed: the fear of conflict or confrontation. On anecdotal evidence, I would place it above spiders and public speaking.

The neurobiology is easy to understand here - the brain responds to social pain (rejection, for instance) in very similar ways, and from almost the same brain regions as physical pain. Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman have very neatly exposed the science behind this:

We have recently proposed that physical pain – the pain experienced upon bodily injury – and social pain – the pain experienced upon social injury when social relation- ships are threatened, damaged or lost – share neural and computational mechanisms [1]. This shared system is responsible for detecting cues that might be harmful to survival, such as physical danger or social separation, and then for recruiting attention and coping resources to minimize threat.
Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So natively, we see conflict and confrontation as something akin to a visit to the dentist: if we face up to it, it will probably be full of pain, much better to avoid it. Further deepening our negative mindset will be the likely history of past disasters, personal and workplace. Moreover, it gets harder for confrontations: often we carry a worry for how the other person will react and we are attached to the outcome, as shown in the Difficulty Matrix below:


Difficulty  Matrix.png

7 Steps to Mine Conflict for Growth

Step 1: Learn to be ok with conflict

In amongst the 'ore' of pain and effort lies some significant paydirt: conflict is the bedrock of innovation and improvement. We rarely learn when we are comfortable, and relationships won't grow without learning. If we can permission and harness conflict, great things can happen. So step 1 is learn to be less uncomfortable with conflict. It is a normal, everyday outcome of human interaction. The more you make a habit of avoiding conflict, the more power it has over you. Acknowledge it, articulate it, observe it and learn from it. 

Step 2: Learn more about conversations

Know the landscape. Conversations and personal interactions have structure and patterns, and when you take a balcony view, rather that always remaining on the dance floor (see here) you can observe these patters and structures. Then, instead of being a victim of the pattern, you can shape it for a better outcome.

This is the common conflict pattern, with a long build-up, co-opting logic or others to justify our position, a confrontation and some length of toxic time afterwards...

This is the common conflict pattern, with a long build-up, co-opting logic or others to justify our position, a confrontation and some length of toxic time afterwards...

Step 3:Plan!


Plan for success and/or learning. Most of us find ourselves in a conversation that really matters, rather than by strategy. Either because someone has an emotional meltdown, or somehow, all of a sudden, you trip over an unknown 'landmine'. Even when we might try to 'plan' for one of these conversations, somehow it all unravels. Use mental models such as Red and Blue Zones, SCARF and the four stages of a conversation (above and below) to help you. Reflect and journal on identifying your WHY, what is in your control and what you really know rather than what you are assuming (all in the Three Circles That Matter guide).

Better outcomes, full of learning, emerge from reducing the time between build-up and taking action, reflecting and planning (and practicing), listening as much as speaking and following up with learning-informed action...

Better outcomes, full of learning, emerge from reducing the time between build-up and taking action, reflecting and planning (and practicing), listening as much as speaking and following up with learning-informed action...

Step 4: Start with your WHY

Start with your WHY. Simon Sinek's masterpiece, The Golden Circle, positions WHY as your compass. Only after really knowing your why should you move to HOW, and finally WHAT. Most of us launch headline into the what of the issue before we have articulated our why (even to ourselves) or planned the how.

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

Step 5 Practice your opening!

Often without our deep awareness, there is a natural structure to any conversation: the opening, the middle and the close. Far from being deeply theoretical or technical, we usually begin with words or actions that are like the conversational handshake, giving us clarity that we are beginning a conversation. Think of your last phone call - unless we are either very familiar, or very emotional, we usually start with something that opens up the space for the conversation. These words usually have very little content meaning, but are all about setting up the engagement. Then, we get into the body of the conversation, and at an appropriate time, we start the disengagement process. When I chat with my mum on the phone for instance, the word "anyway..." starts to signal that we will finish soon.

Photo by  Chris Liverani  on  Unsplash

For formal conversations, or for a conversation that matters, or has risk, we tend to stumble, or begin with a soft approach. Maybe a compliment to warm things up, or a "how was your weekend...?". The longer we prevaricate, the more the discomfort rises. Far better (as supported by the SCARF model) to be calm, respectful and direct. Certainty is your friend here.

So your opening should succinctly present:

  • The purpose (your why)
  • Any relevant emotions, discomfort or sources of conflict
  • The process
  • Some permission (addressing Autonomy in SCARF)

Something like:

"Hi Brian, I need to have an important conversation with you around performance feedback. I know it may be a little uncomfortable for us, given that we are good mates outside of work, but I'm keen to help you learn in your role. I want to reflect on some data, then work this into a coaching conversation with you to identify next steps. When would be a good time for you to meet?"

Now this is not perfect, and won't work in every situation, but it has a far greater chance of success than beginning with "how was your weekend?"...

Once you have your words, practice with a critical friend. Repeat your opening as many times as you can, not to create a script, but to be comfortable and authentically you.  Get this right and the rest is a heck of a lot easier.

Step 6: Just don't tell - ask questions and listen, listen, listen

Learning to use coaching-based questions helps the other person navigate the challenging conversational landscape. Good questions will help you both learn, and create outcomes where each of you are better off. A key element of such success is your capacity to listen. Not listening to understand, but listening observationally. This simply means focus on what you see and hear, and feed this back to the other person. Obvious things to observe include body language and tone of voice, but you can also look for fleeting expressions, repeated actions or words, or stressed words. This type of listening keeps you out of tell mode, and creates a deep sense of being understood in the speaker.


Step 7 Reflect on the conversation, ask for feedback

Finally, get back onto the balcony. Ask about how the conversation went - was it a better outcome than it might have been? What worked? What didn't work. I like this magic set of questions to help extract the learning:

  1. What happened? How did it go?
  2. What emotions were present? How did you feel?
  3. What was learnt?
  4. What are the implications, now that we know this?
  5. What happens next - what action results.

The beauty of these questions is that they can be used for the body of conversation itself, not just reflecting on the conversation.

It's a long post, but one meant to illustrate the power of being less uncomfortable, even to the point of being OK with conflict. There is a better way, it just takes practice...