Conflict isn’t a 4-Letter Word (I counted … twice)

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This article first appeared on my personal blog on August 11, 2015, so if you think it looks familiar …

I was helping to facilitate a leadership workshop with a group of Millennials. As you could probably predict, part of the day was dedicated to discussing conflict and how to handle it. It was clear that the idea of having any kind of conflict was terrifying to most of the group. The minute I brought up the subject, the room got tense and quiet.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on Millennials here — that just happened to be the group I was working with. Indeed, I’ve seen many people at all ages of life who are nervous at the mere mention of “conflict.” It’s almost as if they picture two people duking it out in a boxing ring over the content of a document (or maybe one of those really uncomfortable holiday dinners after Aunt Sally has had a little too much of the cooking wine and it all starts spilling out.)

When did the word conflict become so scary? I have to say I’m disappointed with Merriam Webster for doing their part to further sully its reputation:

I would have reversed the order of those definitions, because I think the third definition is most appropriate and constructive: “a difference that prevents agreement…”

Conflict underlies a lot of the most challenging (and rewarding) things we do in our lives. It occurs when we feel strongly about something (something we think or something we want), and we share that feeling or desire with another party who may or may not agree. It occurs when we ask our boss for time off; when we try to return an item without a receipt; when we ask someone out on a date; and when we have to tell our parents that we are taking the grandkids to the in-laws on Christmas morning. None of these conversations turn to fisticuffs (I hope), but they are difficult to have because they are laced with a taste of conflict.

The best way to make it through these conversations is to have them in a way that seeks to resolve the difference to mutual satisfaction. In other words, think about conflict as a sign that a negotiation needs to take place.

(Way to go, Merriam Webster — you nailed this one!)

Negotiation is one of the top ranked skills among executives and leaders. There are countless articles out there on the subject, and there are pages dedicated to it in every MBA program (Harvard even has a whole program built around it).  And why is it so desirable in business? Because it resolves (or avoids) conflict. Hone your negotiation skills, and you can totally lick conflict.

Alternatively, of course, you can continue to try to avoid conflict, but eventually that will lead to some real 4-letter words, and one of them is loss.

To get started on understanding conflict and negotiation, I recommend Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most from the aforementioned Harvard Negotiation Project team.

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