"Arguing is optional." The Board President explained to a potential board member when he was asked about how they handle conflict.
This answer seemed to delight the prospective board member.
At the time I heard it I thought, wow, what a great point. In my house, we have a rule that we don't argue. Once a conversation devolves into an argument we hit the reset button until we are ready to come at the issue from a constructive and regulated place. Framing arguing as optional is brilliant.
Except that conflict is not optional.
Conflict is inevitable. It happens. It's part of being a human in a relationship with other humans. Disagreements, misunderstandings, differing opinions, diverse perspectives. These are the soil from which conflict sprouts.
While arguing may be optional. Dealing with conflict is not.
That's what this particular leader struggled with. For him, arguing was optional because he was conflict-avoidant.
Unfortunately, a leader might hide from conflict. But it still happens, and when it's consistently avoided, conflict eventually roars.
You might guess what ensued.....arguments! Ugly, hurtful, positional, good people saying mean things, defensive, yelling, finger pointing, "you just don't get it" arguing.
In contrast, I have a client who asks every potential hire how they handle conflict. How this question gets answered is an important criteria used to determine who receives an offer of employment.
Anyone whose answer alludes to "not doing conflict" is immediately disqualified.
It's not a contentious work environment or anything. It's just a bunch of caring humans who work together to build cool things.
But, after a conflict between two team members became escalated beyond repair, my client learned the importance of hiring for this skill. She believes that since conflict is unavoidable it must be addressed early and productively.
Her perspective comes from learning how to navigate conflict in a productive manner with her partner. By nature, my client is conflict-avoidant. But time and experience has shown her that learning strategies for facing conflict early on and in healthy ways actually enables her to avoid more conflicts of a graver nature later on.
My client has told her staff that "It's hard to learn how to do conflict well. And it must be learned outside of work."
As a leader, she pulls on her personal experiences quite often. The ground rules she set for herself for dealing with conflict at home, which she calls "how to fight" inform how she shows up at work and the culture she strives to create.
There's an advantageous coupling which occurs when fostering a culture of productive conflict - people are willing to give and gracious at receiving feedback.
One employee recently expressed gratitude about the space and support for having hard conversations. "I really appreciate that [our company] provides a safe space to have hard conversations and confrontations even... I feel like in a lot of work environments it’s not easy to give feedback or be well-received. Every time I have felt the need to address something it’s always been well received."
I like striving for productive conflict.
In my house, we still pause conversations that devolve into arguments because it's not a constructive way to handle conflict. But we don't shy away from addressing misunderstandings, expressing our feelings when hurt or holding each other accountable when a family rule is broken. These are the same sentiments I bring into my work as a facilitator and coach - we do productive conflict.
It can be hard to find and share your voice in a constructive fashion when emotions are running high. That is why it's so valuable to get help. A little outside perspective can go a long way. If you're struggling with how to navigate a conflict and want a sounding board, please feel free to email me.