Growth Potential of Conflict: Photo of Lock and Key

#102 Five Key Practices to Unlock the Growth Potential of Conflict

In this post I’m outlining some of the ways that you can be more capable in conflict, while at the same time focusing on some challenging (read: potentially rewarding) areas of personal growth. The five practices below will give you access to the growth potential of conflict.

1. Be curious about your reactivity and develop some emotional self-management strategies.

We all become triggered at different times during conflict. The need to self-manage goes without saying, but to be able self-manage when the stakes are high – such as the possible failure of a project or the education of one of your children – is a real challenge. Engage in some self-study and self-training. For example, do you typically lash out, flee the interaction, freeze, or withdraw to your inner world when you’re triggered? And, how do you work with yourself when you fall into your preferred reactive pattern?

2. Seek to see other sides of an issue because your personal history and personality  influence how you interpret, remember, and understand other people and the issues that are relevant.

Chris Argyris’s ladder of inference is one of the best illustrations of how this happens. In simple terms the model contends that in any particular situation two people will make different observations, interpret the observations differently based on personal histories, and come to different conclusions partly guided by self- interest – a cognitive bias that is impossible to completely eliminate. In other words, to a significant degree, we each (unconsciously) create what we perceive. To do well in conflict we have to own the somewhat arbitrary character of our viewpoints and look beyond them, understanding that the experience of others is equally valid. 

3. Your good intentions and positive efforts can have negative impacts on others. Remain curious about the effects of your actions on others.

This can be a painful truth. Our best intentions and best efforts to make a relationship work are not enough. We have to be curious about the effects of our actions and be willing to humbly receive feedback from others. That feedback may be surprising and difficult to accept. In an organizational setting, we have to not only take feedback, but also proactively seek it using deliberate strategies, otherwise we are unlikely to receive it in a full and honest manner.

4. Stand back from conflict and approach it as something that can be managed, and in some situations, be employed for constructive purposes.

How we understand and view a conflict will affect how we engage in it. A common error is to assume it is bad and try to eliminate it. Ongoing relationships will always have some conflict and some of that conflict will not be resolvable. A better strategy may be to manage and work with the ongoing or intermittent conflict that you have. In some cases, particularly a team setting, conflict can aid or even drive innovation.

5. Look within yourself and seek to discern the inner learning opportunities that a conflict is presenting to you.

Mediator and author Ken Cloke explains that each conflict has a lesson for us but we are (often) blind to the lesson. Conflict has a remarkable capability to find the parts of us that are wanting growth. We can learn and grow more when we assume that there is some aspect of ourselves that is calling for our attention. I have found that when people (including myself) work on themselves in the context of a conflict it will usually help them to reach better outcomes.

Growth Potential of Conflict: plant shoots

Use these five practices to boost the growth potential of conflict for you and at the same time respond more effectively. Here are the five practices listed in short form:

  1. Be curious about your reactivity
  2. Seek to see other sides of an issue
  3. Know that your positive efforts can have negative impacts
  4. Manage rather than try to resolve unresolvable differences
  5. Discern the inner learning opportunities that a conflict presents to you


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