I used to be afraid of conflict, and I had the survival strategies to match that fear. Sometimes I would come out swinging hard, if I felt righteous, or particularly angry. Other times, I would give up my own needs and boundaries to protect the other person’s feelings, if I was worried about the relationship. In situations that felt too overwhelming, I would go out of my way to avoid, avoid, avoid. There were times I drifted away from people who were important to me, if it was too hard to get along. As a facilitator, when things got tense in a group, I would freeze and not know how to respond. Sometimes these survival strategies were needed and served me well, but many times they weren’t, and I relied on them indiscriminately.
I tended to think of conflict as fire: something that can quickly get out of control and burn everything down.
I was right about that. But what I was forgetting was all the beautiful and powerful uses fire has, when we work with it wisely. Conflict is like this too. The book that introduced this metaphor to me is Playing With Fire by Fiona MacBeth and Nic Fine.
And if this metaphor makes you wonder “But why play with fire? I’d rather be cold if it means I’m safe,” I’ll point out something I had tried to ignore: conflict is unavoidable. You might as well try to get better at it.
Conflict’s Best Looks
As I learned better ways of working with conflict and began to support others to do the same, I became familiar with its great potential. I saw conflict generate warmth, energy, joy, community, and creativity.
- I’ve seen people who got off on the wrong foot laugh together for the first time.
- I’ve supported people who fundamentally disagree with each other to deepen their understanding and feel real empathy and respect for each other.
- I’ve witnessed teams discover that the solution to a problem that has been holding them up for months is suddenly obvious now that they have processed the underlying tensions.
- I’ve supported leaders to learn how to use the power of their role to encourage greater engagement, willingness to take risks, and openness to feedback.
How I changed my relationship with conflict
The first step on my journey was to be able to stay with the discomfort of conflict. I did some therapy. Lots of it was somatic therapy to help me shift my nervous system’s habitual survival responses. I found meditation helped me stay with uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings. I started taking conflict resolution and restorative justice trainings to feel more confident in my ability to support conflict when it came up in groups I facilitated.
Over time, I understood that it is possible to transform conflict into something new, unexpected, and creative. I slowly over time started sharing what I was learning with other people, and eventually became a Mediator, Coach, and Workplace Restoration practitioner. These days, lots of what I do for work has something to do with conflict, and I find it interesting and even enjoyable. Fifteen years ago I’d have been shocked to know this would be my future self.
Ready to take some first steps?
I’ll be honest, it’s not easy. When conflict happens in my personal life, my habitual survival responses still show up. Sometimes they steal the show. But I have more skills to help me make choices about if and how I want to engage. You can learn these skills too.
A good place to start is by getting to know more about where you are now, and what might help you. The following questions can be helpful:
- What tends to happen when I experience conflict? What kinds of emotions do I experience? What do I tend to do or say? What kinds of stories do I tell myself? How might this be different depending on the situation?
- Can I think of an example of a time that I responded to conflict in a way that I feel good about? What do I know about why that happened?
- What kinds of practices or supports help me to engage (or not engage) in ways that I feel good about?
- What kinds of supports or learning could I seek? Are there skills I want to learn? Are there stuck survival responses or past traumas that it would be helpful to process? Would it be helpful to seek a mentor or an outside perspective?
- Or more metaphorically, what might I need to do to build my personal fire pit?
Why is this especially important for people in leadership roles?
I know I am not alone in disliking conflict. One of my personal passions is being able to support people to develop some of the skills that have helped me.
I tend to focus on people in leadership roles because they disproportionately impact whether conflict is experienced as destructive or generative. It is particularly important for leaders to do their own inner work and capacity building. When leaders are acting out their own habitual survival responses, the potential negative impacts of conflict are amplified by the power of their role. When leaders have built their own conflict capacity, they can support psychologically safe workplaces where people feel safe enough to show up for the hard conversations.
Brook Thorndycraft works as a Mediator, Coach, Adult Educator, Facilitator, and Organizational Consultant. She has many years’ experience in the areas of conflict transformation, organizational change, adult and experiential education, and relational leadership.