The Value of Productive Conflict

A Story

Why Engage in Conflict in the First Place?

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

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

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 change — If 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.



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Patrick Riley

Patrick Riley


Helping to give startups the power to create and grow their business wherever they are as CEO of GAN: @GANconnect