Leaders know how to transform conflict
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

If you are a conflict avoider or struggle to be around one, it’s time to take a new perspective on conflict, and to make it less threatening and – yes – more fun!

But first let’s look at the status quo.

Everyone avoids conflict, even those who are known as disruptors like myself. I avoid conflict pretty much for the same reason as you do: I’m afraid to lose relationship. So I go into a lot of self-talk before I communicate that there is a conflict: Is it worth making a fuss about something that steps on my values, like not living up to their commitment? They might have good reasons to fall short of what they had promised. Or: Am I poisoning my relationship when I point out that someone has just crossed my boundaries?

For these and more reasons to count, most of us try to avoid conflict. In fact, we slowly distance ourselves and disconnect, until we fully realise that we are no longer in relationship with the other. We just decide to not let that co-worker behaviour or attitude touch us. We just decide that they cannot be trusted. We disengage as much as possible. We just stop expecting anything from them.

But there are many people in our lives that trigger us, and we cannot avoid everyone. And the many thoughts and emotions our encounters with these persons trigger in us drain our energy. Eventually one of us erupts, if it is not in our power to let a relationship silently end.

I believe we avoid conflict, because we have not been taught how to make it productive and creative. And we can make it productive. The way of the Co-active leader is one way to transform conflict, rather than to resolve it.

So how can we get from avoiding to embracing conflict as a source of creativity?

The Agreement Model

The common model of engaging in conversation is to listen to other people’s ideas from our point of view. And then to agree or disagree with them. The structure looks like this:

  1. Agree/ disagree
  2. Understand
  3. Accept the other

First, we agree or disagree on something. We then seek to understand – or we don’t, depending on how far we are apart in values and perspectives. Let’s assume that we do seek to understand: We still often cannot overcome the disagreement stage as we start to debate and become impatient with the other person rather than seeking to understand their ideas and reasons behind those.

The problem with this approach is that we seek agreement as the first step in connection. What if we cannot find agreement? Relationship gets lost, and so does a lot of the creativity that lies in the tension of disagreement.

Co-active leadership offers an alternative:

The Alignment Model

The Co-active model of engaging in conversation is to listen to other people’s ideas from a place of acceptance. And then we agree and disagree from that place of acceptance until we get to a place of shared understanding. The structure looks like this:

  1. Accept the other
  2. Notice agreement or disagreement
  3. Understand
  4. Align
  5. Agree or disagree or find third way solution

Notice that here our starting point is accepting the other, as we come from a place of unconditional mutual positive regard. After all, we disagree with the person’s idea, so we can still accept the person.

From this acceptance, we clarify our point of views.

Then we dig deeper into the other’s points of view to understand what is really important to them. What is underneath their position? What does the other see and hear that we don’t? What do they truly care about?

From this exploration we usually find something that we can both align around. A shared wish or belief. We call that a shared stake. And when we have found something which we can align around, we can agree or disagree with more ease. This also opens up the possibility of a third way of moving forward, something that neither of us was able to see before our conversation,something that is not a compromise which would leave each of us only half satisfied.

I wonder what would be possible for your private relationships, your team’s relationships, and your organisation’s culture if you stopped calling disagreements “conflict” and instead started calling them “alignment conversations”?

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