Productive vs. Unproductive Conflict

From time to time we feature other experts in business improvement. I am thrilled to bring you this insightful article from Dr. Victoria Simon and Dr. Holly Pedersen of Talk Works, Inc. The ladies were recently guests on my Small Business Hour and we discussed how unproductive conflict can be turned into “productive” conflict. (Yes, there is a difference). They were even able to resolve some conflict between Matt Walker and I – a miracle in itself! Check them out at

-Mark Deo Introduction
A couple of months ago we received a call from a mid-sized Los Angeles based company that had recently expanded. One of the new division heads called to book a communication-training program for his team. He explained that he wanted us to come “immediately, if not sooner.” Due to his obvious concern for the success of his new division, we shuffled our schedules and arrived to begin our team building training the following week. Our first in-person meeting took place in his office, just prior to the start of the first session. He explained that his team had made virtually no progress with their initial goals “because there’s too much conflict!” My only thought was, “Oy! Wait till he hears our introduction to his group when we tell everyone that we’re here to teach them how to have conflict!”

What is productive conflict? (and do we really need it?)
Here is our definition of unproductive conflict: frequent, repetitive arguments that are not resolved and that leave both parties feeling more angry and frustrated. It is common for unproductive conflict to occur when the “real” issues are not being communicated, but instead trivial issues are being expressed through provocative communication styles such as jokes, sarcasm, denial, blame, etc. Productive conflict, however, is an open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas in which parties feel equally heard, respected, and unafraid to voice dissenting opinions for the purpose of reaching a mutually comfortable resolution. Because this type of conflict allows individuals to feel comfortable sharing conflicting opinions and ideas, it is a very creative and dynamic process that reveals new possibilities and insights. The stronger your ability to engage in productive conflict, the more profitable your business will be. Think about it: why do you hire different “experts” in your company? Because each one of them has different education, work and life experience, and problem solving skills. The ability for teams to come together and share their ideas, expertise and opinions is what inspires the most creative and forward thinking business decisions. But this will inevitably involve conflict as your teams share their different opinions on the “best” way to accomplish each goal. Even the sole proprietor profits from successful productive conflict skills since interactions with clients or customers can be handled in ways that ways that undermine trust, create negative feelings and ultimately turn customers away or that allow relationships to flourish (and generate excellent word of mouth and referrals).

5 simple steps to productive conflict
1. State position using “I” statements, OR speaking behind a glass wall. Imagine that you are standing behind a glass wall. You can see and hear the person you are talking to, but you are only allowed to discuss what is taking place on your side of the wall. You do this by talking ONLY about yourself. Be very careful not to assume that starting a sentence with “I” is enough to avoid pointing the finger (We hear this all the time from “I” communication beginners: “I think you’re wrong!” Clearly this will not avoid an argument.). The goal is to avoid creating defensiveness in the other party and to ensure that you are clearly voicing your ideas and thoughts rather than becoming distracted from the issue by pointing fingers at the other person. Just think about how it feels when the person with whom you are arguing says something like, “You just don’t get it! Your ideas are crazy!” That “you” immediately places us on guard, so we become unwilling to engage in the kind of healthy exchange necessary for productive conflict. Try “I” instead! 2. Identify common ground or a common goal. While productive conflict does by nature involve an exchange of differing ideas and opinions, it still requires that the involved parties share the common goal of developing a mutually agreed upon resolution, plan, or decision. Clearly stating what you and the other party have in common — to complete the project, resolve the conflict, decide on a plan of action – means that you begin the discussion as members of the same team, moving forward in the same ultimate direction, rather than as opposing forces. 3. Use reflective listening. In order for conflict to be productive, the thoughts and ideas of all involved parties must be truly listened to and understood. We are often so eager for someone to hear and agree with our point of view that we lose site of the fact that a solution that works for both parties can never be reached until all opinions, wants, needs, and desires have been shared and listened to. Reflective listening involves not responding immediately, but actually thinking about what the other person has said asking questions, if needed, to ensure that you understand and to reassure the other party that they are really being heard. For example, “It sounds like you’re suggesting that we restructure the management team, is that correct?” 4. Get curious About others’ ideas. Rather than immediately shooting down a co-worker’s ideas, or jumping to defend your own position or opinions, “get curious” about your co-workers’ ideas. Focus the discussion on finding out more information about your co-workers’ thoughts and experiences, and the reasons for their position. Uncover as much information as possible about why your co-workers think the way they do. This not only prevents the discussion from being an argument in which the involved parties staunchly defend their position, but it also may result in you learning something. 5. Gradients of agreement. Making conflict productive and creative also involves redefining what it means to “agree” with others. An agreement doesn’t have to mean a 100% consensus of involved parties. It could mean a partial agreement, or even an agreement to move forward with a decision without complete consensus from the group. Operating under the assumption that all parties must agree completely may keep you stuck in the process of resolving a conflict or making a decision. See if it is possible to achieve a gradient of agreement. ConclusionBusiness productivity depends on your willingness to engage in productive conflict. Hopefully your business creates a work environment where top, mid and lower level employees trust that openly sharing ideas and voicing opinions is not only acceptable, but encouraged. By applying these five simple steps you will be able to transform “conflict” into a powerful business tool. To learn more communication and collaborative team building skills, we encourage you to see our website at: or to contact Talk Works at 310.860.5191. Victoria Simon, Ph.D., CEO Talk Works, Inc.Holly Pedersen, Ph.D., President Talk Works, Inc.

Posted in Relationship Management, Uncategorized.

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