Team conflict is normal. Avoiding conflict is also normal. And handling it badly and making a bigger mess of it also happens frequently. In fact, most team members and team leaders are unequipped to handle conflict. They don’t have reliable tools. Human beings being unpredictable, there is no perfect template. However, there are steps that consistently help turn the heat of conflict into the energy of creative conversation.

One of the reasons team leaders and team members avoid conflict is the fear that things will go wildly out of control and will become personal. It helps to make a clear distinction between two forms of conflict:

Functional conflict is disagreement that focuses on “how” — on tasks, issues, ideas, principles or process. With functional conflict, it is clear that the outcome of the challenging conversation is for the benefit of the team.

Relationship conflict is personal. It’s arguing over who’s right and is focused on winning. It’s about the players and can quickly escalate into attacks, blaming, sarcastic zingers … exactly what teams fear most about conflict and clearly not for the team’s benefit.

When there is conflict, we want to be working in the functional, generative zone. Here are six steps to enter that zone.

Step One: Start Early

There are a lot of reasons to avoid conflict. You’re busy. You’ll deal with it later. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Then, that minor irritation is reinforced, the fire builds and the top blows off in a meeting. What may have started as unaligned expectations becomes a firestorm. If the early signals fester, they naturally build momentum.

Step Two: Be Willing

Take the initiative. Go first. Be committed, and then stay — even when it is uncomfortable. For the team leader, this step is especially important. It sets the standard for the team, and the leader’s willingness to engage makes it easier for the team members to step up.

Step Three: Look for Alignment

This step can be the key to keeping the conversation in functional conflict. What do you both, or all, care about? Where are you aligned? Search for common ground, even if it is small territory. Then, when things become messy, go back to that refuge of mutual agreement.

Step Four: Honor Different Points of View

Too often, in the midst of disagreement, no one is listening. Everyone is simply reloading to fire off another salvo for his or her position. Those positions then become entrenched and fortified. The more creative option is to listen for the intent behind the position and the value it brings to the discussion. Stand in the other’s shoes. Be curious. Ask yourself, “What is there to learn here?”

Step Five: Listen for Understanding

Practice active listening: Play back what you’re hearing, summarize what others said and ask clarifying questions. This strategy will both improve understanding and slow down the heated momentum.

Step Six: Search for Action Steps

In functional conflict, we are headed for a result, not more fighting. Be generous and inclusive, but find an action step to keep moving forward.

A Few Valuable Ground Rules

  • Take time as a team to create agreements for how you will handle conflict. Then, make it everyone’s responsibility to honor those rules of engagement.
  • Put an emphasis on asking open-ended questions that invite exploration. This ground rule applies in any team conversation but especially when disagreement heats up. Make it a goal for each team member to ask questions about as often as he or she states a position. (And not questions with a dagger inside them, like this one: “Have you considered how misguided your plan is?”)
  • Acknowledge each other from time to time. Show genuine appreciation for team members’ contributions, even if you disagree with their ideas.

The Payoff: Better Team Results

Conflict avoidance and a lack of tools to handle disagreement well comes with a significant cost in lost productivity and damage to the team culture. Disagreement, impassioned debate, and open conflict over method or process are all signs of life on the team. They’re much better than indifference or the chilly atmosphere of fear that silences new ideas. This process means making room for — and even inviting —unpopular points of view. It means asking, “What are we missing?”

Teams that learn how to handle conflict well explore more options, make better decisions and are more innovative. They build trust by standing in the fire together.

Conflict will likely always be uncomfortable and stressful. But harnessing its inherent energy and turning it into creativity leads to a stronger team and better team results. Handling conflict well is a key leadership and team competence.

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