The Value of Productive Conflict

“But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies.”  

— Joe Biden, United States President-Elect, acceptance speech on November 7, 2020 

A Story

At my university, I studied Interpersonal Communications, which is the study of how humans connect with one another both individually and collectively. While my friends studied engineering, political science, and philosophy and their textbooks were on calculus and world diplomacy, my books and classes were focused on human interaction—specifically, on conflict and how it strengthens relationships.

While at university, my friends and I were engaging with similar conversations to the ones we’re having today about our world at large. Conversations about if and how we should be at war. About who would be the best President to drink a beer with, and who we should elect as our next President. Unfortunately, I found most conversations about politics and other emotionally-charged topics unproductive as they were full of high emotion, personal attacks, and very rarely changed someone’s opinions on the topic at hand. Both sides of the discussion lacked empathy or willingness to change. I would find myself in emotional ping pong games, ones in which raised voices would spit fact after fact at the other person and attacking one another’s character would happen frequently (i.e., phrases like “You’re such an idiot for thinking that way” would permeate the conversations). The general notion came to be, “I can’t have empathy for the other person. I can’t even begin to have a debate with them because they’re so far away from what I believe.”

I never changed my viewpoints as a result of those discussions. In fact, my existing beliefs become more ingrained as a result of this type of conflict. All of this was very concerning to me, especially as my degree was telling me that the way I was doing conflict was completely unhealthy – both for myself and getting others to change their opinions.

All of this changed when I moved to Washington, D.C. right after college. Almost immediately after arriving in the city, I was surrounded by new friends working at the highest levels of Capitol Hill and the White House, many of whom fell on the other side of the political aisle. I imagined the discussions about politics would be even more intense than the ones I had in college. And yet, they were calm, collected, and curious. They were fact-based. There were more genuine questions asked of the other person than a spewing of facts and opinions.

And, I changed my political leanings as a result. Not because I heard anything new or there was some sort of mind-blowing realization I had. But rather, in those discussions, I wasn’t on defense. The discussions were curious. And there was a shared understanding that most of us were looking to learn from one another, even if we completely disagreed at the time.

If we’re going to grow personally, in our businesses, and as a society and do, as Joe Biden suggested, “listen to one another”, we need a better script for how to do conflict in 2020.

Why Engage in Conflict in the First Place?

Going back to the university example for a second, when I was engaging in those heated discussions, I, like those around me, was trying to get the other person to change their belief system to align with my worldview, which I believed to be a better way to understand the world. 

Seeking to persuade someone to a new opinion is not inherently bad—in fact, it is a good thing. It is incredibly productive to engage in a process where we want someone else to change their mind. It’s what a democracy is all about. Building a “more perfect union” requires all of us to wrestle with hard topics with people who think differently.

And, we’re engaged in swaying people’s opinions (which we could define as a form of “conflict”) multiple times a day. This could come in the form of getting a colleague or potential client to change their thinking so that they “buy” into an idea or product we have, or engaging with an uncle to get him to vote differently.

However, most of us believe that conflict isn’t productive. That we shouldn’t engage in it, for fear of losing the relationship we have with the other person, or because it’s just uncomfortable. Yet, what would happen if we came to believe that the best way to love the other person is to fully engage in conflict with them? To have a discussion about how our views differ? What would happen if we all believed that productive conflict with people different from us will make us better humans and a better society?

Think about the conflicts you have with a friend, where you both end with a better understanding of the other. Not only do you grow in how you engage with one another, typically you become closer as a result of the conflict.

And with your significant other — productive conflict often leaves you feeling thankful that your partner brought up something that will help you grow as a human. 

At work — for me, the same holds true with a teammate tells me how I’ve let them down, or a way I can improve as a leader. That “conflict” leads me to have a better understanding of how to be a CEO.

Or, when I was in Washington, D.C., that conflict led me to change my political leanings.

Ultimately, productive conflict usually leads to more growth, empathy, and trust.

So, if we believe that healthy conflict could happen, how do we actually have it?

First, we must believe change is possible within others and ourselves.

When I was studying Interpersonal Communications, we spent a ton of time and energy focusing on marriage. It’s one of the most important and easy-to-research relationships out there. My favorite author on this topic is John Gottman, who has written some truly remarkable books on how relationships remain strong and while others fall apart.

One of the most unfortunate things he found is that once one partner becomes closed to change, there is an almost 100% chance of that relationship ending in divorce. But, if you believe and have hope that you or your partner can change for the better, the odds almost completely flip that you’ll be together forever.

This same concept is true in any type of interpersonal relationship. Think about work —  if you believe that the boss will never change their mind, you’ll never disagree or bring up new ideas with her — which leads to many missed opportunities for the individuals and the business.  

Healthy conflict must first start with being open-minded to change and trusting that the other person is capable of changing. If we believe that the other person will never change, why even begin to discuss what the future looks like? We might as well give up. Believing someone can change means assuming the best of that person, dignifying them with your trust, and trusting they will do the same. To Gottman’s point, if we don’t believe a person can change, we will avoid conflict and miss the opportunity to grow as people and grow in relationships. 

Second, we must believe that engaging in dialogue is better than not engaging in dialogue.

One of the issues we’re having with our conflict today is the belief that it’s better not to have conflict. But, think about what happened when I was in D.C. With productive conflict, I literally changed my political party. And you see this over and over again. Productive conflict has led people to stay married, find new business opportunities, and join movements.

I was at a (socially distant, outdoor) conference a few weeks ago, and we spent a lot of the time discussing conflict, and during the conversation, someone made a point that I’ll never forget. He said that, even if we agree with one another deeply, one of us should disagree just for the sake of disagreeing. By doing that, it will help both of us become sharper and ensure that we’re thinking through our points and thoughts with confidence — as well as giving us empathy for what the other person is thinking about and believing.

And finally, engaging in any conflict will always require the following —

  • The right goal — We usually start conflict thinking that our job is to share with the other person our view so that they begin to think like us. So they think the “right” way. But to have a productive conversation, we must believe the initial goal is a mutual understanding of the other person, not that they see your point of view and agree with it. That way, we’ll be able to start a conflict in a way that’s not all about facts and opinions – it’s first about understanding, laying the trust for solid conflict to occur.
  • A belief that we can changeIf you go into a discussion thinking that you’re 100% right and without curiosity, how can you expect the other person to change their views? We both need to engage the discussion with an open mind and a belief that you may end up changing your beliefs as well.
  • Fact-based discussions — I just came across some research a few weeks ago that anytime you make an emotional argument to a person who disagrees with you, that person will not only keep their current opinion, but they’ll actually become more solidified in their view. So, instead of saying “you’re an idiot” like my friends did in college, the better things to say are questions like, “How did you come to think this way,” and “What facts have you seen that led you to believe this is the best policy,” and (my favorite) “What friends of yours have been negatively impacted by this particular issue you’re struggling with.” It keeps things focused on facts rather than opinions or emotions.
  • Empathy — Krita Tippett talks about this at length in her book “Becoming Wise.” Her point is that once we start to understand how a person came to think a certain way, we’ll have so much more grace for them. For instance, she loves bringing together pro-life and pro-choice people together, believing that neither side will ever like or have a friendship with the other side. But, when they come together, they tell stories of their lives and how they came to be pro-life or pro-choice. It’s those stories that then help us go, “I see you, while I may disagree with you. I understand how you came to think this way.” Which then allows you to have a much more trusting conversation about the issue at hand.
  • Risk — You may be hurt anytime you bring up conflict. There is a risk. You may bring up something to a colleague, and they blow up at you. You may ask questions about why a person thinks this way or came to believe this certain thing, to which the person will respond, saying that it’s none of your business. The point – you may be hurt, and there is a risk of that. But the goals of mutual understanding and a belief that trust can lead to changing people’s minds far outweighs the risk you may have.
  • Patience — You’re not going to change people’s opinions overnight. And in a conversation, there’s going to be a lot of back and forth that has to happen to reach a place where you can have a mutual understanding. So, it’s important to realize that patience is key.
  • Selflessness — The other person may get emotional. Your job is to stay cool, and this is so hard for me. When I’m trying to engage in thoughtful discussion, and the other person is fighting their way through it by throwing opinions over facts or getting emotional, I want to match them. But the much better thing to do is recognize while they may be getting emotional and attack you, the best way to get through conflict is to become selfless – to take what they’re telling you and not take it personally. The best way I’ve found to do this is to understand how the drama triangle works. It’s this psychology principle that in most conflicts, one person is the hero, villain, or victim, while the other person is a hero, villain, or victim. We each typically take one role. But, the best conflict happens when one or neither of us is the victim, villain, or hero, where we’re having conflict in ways where there are facts, empathy, and a shared goal of mutual understanding.

Here’s to calm and successful discussions in the upcoming holiday season.