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How leaders can start building conflict capacity

No matter the technical or academic skills a leader possesses, there is an often-overlooked skill that's essential: Conflict capacity.

Conflict capacity is the ability to tolerate conflict without getting triggered into unconscious reactions. A leader with low conflict capacity lacks the self-awareness to know when they have hit their emotional and mental limits, and as a result mismanage conflict and make poor decisions. Many leaders I’ve worked with didn’t recognize the first signs of conflict and didn’t know when they were in too deep. As a result, they made significant mistakes that, while unintentional, caused a lot of lost time, lost productivity and legal expenses for the organization. 

Just like expanding your physical health through aerobic capacity, strength or stamina, building conflict capacity requires conditioning, discipline and deliberate practice. You need to be able to withstand the storm instead of resorting to the coping mechanisms of avoiding, appeasing or aggression.

Here are four ways to start building more conflict capacity.

1. Reframe conflict

The first way we mismanage conflict is by the way we define conflict. Various dictionary definitions include a state of open fighting; a state of disagreement or disharmony between persons or ideas; a mental struggle; and a battle or war. No wonder most of us have such an aversion to conflict.

When you define conflict differently, you think about it differently. My working definition of conflict is "misalignment due to opposing drives, desires and demands." This definition takes personality out of the equation, eliminates your assumptions about motive and makes conflict much more interesting.

The visual I often use is two arrows going in opposite directions. For example, if two business-unit managers argue over budget, it’s not because they are bad people; it’s because they have not yet found ways to align their opposing desires, drives and demands. Their arrows go in opposite directions until they have a conversation to increase understanding and decision-making.

2. Get curious

Every time you get defensive, remind yourself that defensiveness is a sign you need more information. It’s time to use curiosity as a tool for conflict management by asking good questions, like, “Walk me through your thinking,” or “I’m curious, how did you come to that decision?” Then you wait for the answer; you don’t wait to attack.

When you are genuinely curious, you ask good questions to try to get inside the head of the other person. You don’t assume you already know what they are going to say; after all, they haven’t said it yet. When you’re curious you don’t interrupt and demand to be heard, you use radical listening in order to make aligned decisions.

3. Expand your comfort zone

It’s difficult to change patterns, especially when working with high-conflict individuals. Sometimes you have to hold your tongue on the roof of your mouth to stop interrupting. You have to consciously slow down your pace in order to build tolerance. When every bone in your body wants to debate or prove a point, you build capacity by consciously deciding to pause and compose yourself.

One of my clients recently told me he waited to respond to a belligerent email. In the past he would have lashed out immediately. I told him, “If a hammer is the only tool you have, it makes sense to try a few other tools to expand your capabilities. Sometimes you need some WD 40, and sometimes you need a wrench. You can always grab the hammer as plan B, but it doesn’t always need to be plan A.”

When it comes to building conflict capacity, comfort is not a requirement. Building conflict capacity means giving up what has made you comfortable up to this point. The biggest barrier to building conflict capacity (outside of cultural influences) is the commitment to comfort.

4. Seek mentoring

Why is it that we seldom ask for help when we are in over our heads? An easier way is to set yourself up for success before the drama ensues. If you’re a front-line leader, seek mentoring. Ask your boss to speak with you on a scheduled basis to discuss your decision-making. Be humble and make the case that you are looking out for the good of the organization. This is easy if you admire your boss, and more difficult if you don’t.

The very fact that you asked will elevate your boss’s awareness and will help you form a better relationship and understand things from their viewpoint. If your boss is growth-oriented,  they will be happy you asked. This keeps the door open when you start to have problems. The good news is that you will never blindside your boss if they know what you’re up to. 

Conclusion

Advancing leaders without building conflict capacity leads to organizational problems. Although no leader enjoys conflict, competent leaders understand that conflict is not the problem: Mismanagement is. Every conflict avoided is a conflict mismanaged. The top skill for today’s leader is building conflict capacity.

 

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and an advanced practitioner of Narrative Coaching. She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at MarleneChism.com.

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