“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Words many of us heard from the time we were very young. If your family lived by this rule, you might still struggle to share constructive feedback or to raise uncomfortable issues. If, on the other hand, the rule was more like, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything…until we get in the car,” you might have learned that overt conflict is bad, but passive-aggressiveness is accepted. Let’s hope there were at least a few of you out there who were raised in families that had positive, healthy conflict.

As I mentioned recently, I’m gearing up to write a new book. This time, I’m delving deeply into conflict and how we need to embrace productive conflict to make our organizations stronger. I thought if I could write a post on each chapter, it might kick start the process and give me a sense of whether I’m onto something of value. I’d love your thoughts on these posts and what I might add to the ideas for the book.

Before I dive into the mindset and skill set required for productive conflict, I want you to become more self-aware about your conflict defaults. For contrast sake, I’ll paint a few exaggerated portraits of the different conflict personas that you might exhibit on your bad days. Which one is most like you?

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Do you have a strong aversion to conflict and the belief that conflict doesn’t lead anywhere good? Is your natural tendency to smooth things over and to steady any rocking boat? Will you forgo progress on an issue to avoid uncomfortable or disruptive conversations? Do you long for harmonious relations and happy teams?

“Don’t hurt me!”

Do you roll over at the first whiff of conflict coming at you? Is your first reaction to conflict to give in just to stop the pressure? Do you play the victim and portray your adversaries as bullies who use power to get their own way? Will you do anything just to make it stop?

“At least we’re all equally unhappy.”

Are you the compromiser always in search of middle ground? Do you expect each side to give up some things they want just to find a mutually agreeable solution every time? Do you measure success not in terms of the best outcome for the business, but the most equal distribution of gives and takes?

“Fake it ‘till you break it”

Do you hide your negative reactions under forced smiles and tepid support? Does your disapproval only come out when you’re talking to someone safe? Is your opposition to an issue only apparent once you’ve quietly undermined it? Do you smile to their faces but whisper behind their backs?

“My way or the highway!”

Are you the assertive one who batters others with your position until they relent and go along? Do you intimidate and overpower those who oppose you? Do you use threats to get what you want?

“Playing the boss card”

Do you rely on the strength of others to get what you want? Do you invoke the boss’ name and claim you’re just doing his bidding? Do you try to avoid blame and maintain relationships by deflecting accountability? Are you the one with a scapegoat for any unpleasant message?

Ask yourself

Now that you’ve read each of these caricatures, ask yourself:

  • Which one rings true for you? Which is most like you on a bad day?
  • Is there one that’s more like the natural you and one that you’ve started to adopt based on your current team or organization culture? Where do you think that style evolved from?
  • Can you trace your conflict defaults back to situations from your life? What have been the important moments in your career where your conflict defaults have shifted?
  • Are there any unhealthy styles that are actually rewarded by your boss or in your organization?

Before you can change your conflict mindset and build your conflict skills, you need to be aware of your defaults. Pay attention for the next week and identify places where you had an option for how to handle conflict. Does your default kick in? What alternatives do you have and how could they lead to more productive conflict?

Further Reading

Stop Conflict Before it Starts

When Discussions Get Heated

Are You Competing When You Should Be Cooperating


7 Responses to Your conflict defaults

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