Our default setting is to avoid conflict when possible. It’s messy, it takes us away from our purpose, it sucks energy. I’ve spent the last two years working with a rapidly-growing company experimenting with the exact opposite approach.
Instead of avoiding conflict, we deliberately created a container for people to have difficult discussions. As issues come up, the people involved in the conflict get on the phone with a container-holder and talk for an hour. There’s no real structure to the calls other than to stay connected for the hour. Everyone can use the system: staff, customers, affiliate leaders. And no topic is too big or small. I am one of the people who holds the container for these calls.
Here’s what often happens: we get on the phone. The participants are awkward and defensive. It can feel sticky and messy as pent-up feelings are expressed. It’s actually pretty endearing how little skill most of us have around conflict. It doesn’t matter how “awake” you are, your stuff will come up in connection with others. (In fact, that’s the point.)
Then, sooner or later they naturally find their way back into connection. You can feel it when it happens, almost like a “click.” The defensiveness dissipates, they acknowledge each other’s point of view, and a resolution naturally emerges. It’s really not about joint “problem solving” at all; that’s just a benefit of connection. And we have a natural urge to connect.
Here’s another interesting thing. When I began these calls, they tended to be more explosive, late-stage conflict. As time has gone on, the calls happen at earlier stages.
Here’s a really interesting thing. Once the people resolve the immediate issue, they often don’t just hang up and call it a day. They use the opening to build their relationship. They get more intimate. They crack jokes. They say other things that were on their mind. They become partners in designing their relationship going forward.
So, three awesome things are happening here.
Awesome thing one: given attention, conflict often naturally resolves itself.
Awesome thing two: when people know it’s safe to talk about conflict and disconnection, they do it earlier and before it turns explosive.
Awesome thing three: the very same energy that leads to destructive relationships can actually be used to build relationships, increase creativity, and growth.
So, given all this awesomeness, it kind of makes you think that conflict is not only something we don’t need to be afraid of, it might actually be . . . a good thing? Whoa.
This way of approaching conflict cuts against our typical conditioning. We tend to pride ourselves on not having conflict in our homes or businesses. We tend to give conflict incredible amounts of power OVER us by doing our hardest to avoid it, instead of learning how to USE it to to fuel our purpose and collective goals.
But conflict is actually creative energy. It only turns destructive when it is ignored or handled without skill. When we give it a way to express itself, when we learn how to surf its waves, we can harness it for power and growth.