Every team needs a little healthy conflict.
That’s not the kind of thing any HR leader would want to put on the break room wall. You’re not going to find inspirational posters about conflict.
But Dr. Nate Regier is on a mission to show people, including teams at work, that conflict is healthy. Conflict itself isn’t bad, he says; it’s all about how we respond to it. I asked him about harnessing the power of conflict, which he explores in his new book, “Conflict Without Casualties.”
Conflict Isn’t Complicated
First, Dr. Regier says, we should stop and think about what conflict really is. It’s less complicated — and more pervasive — than you might think. “Conflict is simply the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing, at any point in time,” he says.
For example, the gap could be that you want to be at work at 8 a.m. and instead, you’re stuck in a long line at Starbucks. Or it could be something more significant: You want to feel aligned with your team but you don’t.
“There’s conflict all the time, everywhere,” Regier says. “The first important thing is to simply recognize that and demystify it.” We need to begin by understanding that conflict isn’t good or bad.
Conflict Can Be Useful
Conflict gets a bad rap. Regier says that if you start typing the word “conflict” into Google, the suggested searches that come up are about reducing and managing conflict. “As soon as you see the word, everyone says, ‘manage it, mediate it, reduce it, control it,’” he says. “We have this myth that conflict is bad, and that people always get hurt, so we need to make it go away. But conflict is energy. And if we get rid of the energy, then we’re just left flat, bored and uncreative.”
A lot of people hate conflict, and avoid it at all costs. But Regier says avoiding conflict is unhealthy — and has negative consequences in the long run.
He says he worked with someone who said, “Well, I just avoid conflict. I just don’t do it.” When he asked what she did instead of facing conflict, she said, “I don’t sleep well, I’m preoccupied, I fume, I gossip.”
Avoiding conflict does affect us. “We’re spending that energy one way or another, whether we’re tackling the problem or whether we’re stewing, and gossiping, and avoiding. We have a real energy crisis here. Conflict is an unbelievable source of energy, but we’re misusing it. And there are just so many upsides if we can start thinking differently,” he says.
How We Respond to Conflict Matters
So how can we engage in conflict in a healthy way? Regier says we should think about how we approach the core struggle in every conflict situation.
“We are struggling to close that gap and get what we want, and to reconcile those differences. We can struggle to close that gap against each other, in an adversarial way. And then that becomes drama, because there’s a winner and a loser. Or we can struggle with somebody to create something, and that’s what we call compassion.”
“Most people think compassion is caring, sympathy, ‘my heart goes out to you,’” he says. “But really, compassion, if you go to the Latin root, means ‘to suffer with.’ ‘Com’ means alongside, or with, and ‘Passion’ means to suffer or struggle. So, ‘compassion’ means to struggle with, which is the exact opposite of ‘drama,’ which is to struggle against.”
Once you decide to take the compassionate route and struggle together, it’s important to get clear about what we really want. Instead of saying, “I want you to stop yelling at me,” dig deeper and think about what you’re really asking for. What you want is to feel safe, valued and connected. And if you can identify that and talk about it, you might be able to work together to figure out how to make that happen.
When Regier works with teams, he looks at how their everyday processes and procedures either reinforce the healthy rules of engagement around conflict or reinforce drama. How do they talk to each other, write memos to each other and work together every day? Are they struggling with each other or against each other?
This work is incredibly important for all businesses, he says. “The next generations are very disillusioned with capitalism because they’re seeing casualties of conflict. I think businesses have a huge opportunity to show the next generation that we can balance compassion and accountability and pursue business goals while making a positive difference in people’s lives. And there don’t have to be human or environmental casualties in the process.”
I’m in — what about you?
To learn more about healthy responses to conflict, check out Dr. Regier’s book, “Conflict Without Casualties.”