Two Men in Conflict

The Antidote to Unhealthy Conflict

An introspective look at conflict, why people argue, and how you can grow through the experience.

“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict — alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.” ― Dorothy Thompson

You’ve surely dealt with people that dig into their ideas and do whatever it takes for those ideas to win the day. Those people are stubborn and hard to deal with. In the battle of wills, they belittle opposition, treat others as stupid for their stance on a topic, and become angry. Pushback strengthens their resolve and builds the wall between you higher. In an unhealthy conflict such as this, no one gives ground, no one learns, and no one reconsiders anything.

Unhealthy conflict is pervasive. You see this behavior in others every day — just log on to social media for proof. If only you could help them change how they think and behave, oh how the world would be a better place.

What if ‘people,’ ‘they,’ and ‘them’ includes you?

It’s hard for us to see and admit we can sometimes be that person, but what if it was inside us? If there is a chance that you are that person, even rarely, would you want to uncover it, understand it, and squash it?

I’ve been that person to some degree.

My need to be right led me to be an overbearing jerk to those who disagreed with me. I dug in because I was right (in my mind), and everyone else was less enlightened. I talked over others because what I had to say was more important, I treated those who disagreed as stupid, and I showed anger after not successfully convincing them my points were superior.

If this describes your behavior at times, there is great hope.

I’m no longer that person I described — usually. I’ve matured, gained wisdom, and studied conflict. I’ve come a long way. I am still human, however, and I do slip back into that pattern at times. The key is to understand why and to want to avoid that place. Are you with me?

I have a perspective to share on the root of conflict and why people argue and compete for ideas so strongly. When you understand this perspective it will help you turn costly conflict into productive outcomes.

The Impact of Conflict

For some, there is an insatiable appetite, a “need” even, to be right and to elevate themselves. When two or more people have this “need,” there will be visible conflict until one person’s will prevails.

“Conflict is simply the energy created by the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing,” says Nate Regier, a former practicing psychologist and author of Conflict Without Casualties (Berrett-Koehler, 2017).

I don’t think I did this, though I may have, some may take it as far as to hope others’ ideas fail so they can say, “I told you so.” The need to be right, smart, and important can outweigh all reason. I know firsthand that holding tightly to my own ideas kept me from seeing better ideas, and kept me from experiencing better outcomes. It also hurt my relationships.

This behavior is not only unproductive for relationships, it costs our companies money. According to CPP, Inc, employees in United States companies spend approximately 2.8 hours each week involved in conflict. This amounts to around $359 billion in hours paid that are focused on conflict instead of on positive productivity.

Conflict is costly, but not necessarily all bad, nor should it be avoided. According to the human resources professionals at SHRM, “eliminating tension in the workplace isn’t feasible — and isn’t healthy for your organization in the long run. A better approach is to redirect the attention wasted on petty fighting toward a positive pursuit.”

Pride is Why We Argue

Why did I think my ideas were better? Why was it so important for me to be right? The root issue is pride. Take a look at any conflict, any disagreement, and somewhere in there is a battle of wills for who is right. That’s why we argue.

We dig in and hold on to what we think is right because we were raised to believe the strongest survive; that the best ideas and smartest people succeed. We think our ideas and methods are best, or at least better, so we fight for them; we argue for them. We believe we have to be the source of the great ideas so we get credit, so we get promoted and praised. Our pride is strengthened by promotions and praise; by acceptance.

The world taught us that being right is important, so we work hard to show others how smart we are. Schools and corporate culture reward individuals for being right, so that creates competition for the best ideas. There’s nothing wrong with competition, per se. Here’s the problem though — we cannot know which ideas are best, or better, up front. Only history can decide what ideas and actions prove fruitful. Yet, we can be quick to presume we are right.

I wanted my ideas and my way to win. When I prevailed, I felt validated and strong. I felt pride. My ideas moved forward, but that doesn’t mean the best ideas moved forward. Often, the best ideas don’t move forward when pushed from a position of pride.

Humility is the Antidote

There is truth. There is often a right position. There may be times we need to assert that truth — like the stove will burn you if you touch it. There are also opportunities to gain more insights and uncover better perspectives when we have some humility and are open to new information.

We may have confidence in our position based on data and experience, but what if instead of declaring all our ideas as right and definitive, we looked at them as assumptions that need validated? Rather than holding onto biases and forcing those assumptions to stick, what if we worked hard to find ways to disprove those assumptions — to prove ourselves wrong?

“They [Leaders] seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” — Amazon Leadership Principle

What’s the worse that can happen when we seek to disprove what we know? I suppose being wrong can hurt your pride, but I hope finding better ideas and outcomes outweighs being right. Who knows, you may also confirm your original position by testing it through the fire.

When our mindsets shift from understanding that we don’t truly know which ideas will produce the best results, to understanding that we merely assume, then we can let go of the conflict of competing ideas and work together toward testing and validating our, and other’s, assumptions. What if we wanted the best ideas to win, even if they weren’t our own?

“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” — Ronald Reagan

In Conclusion

Debate over competing ideas is not something to avoid. What is unhealthy is the need to be right and the destructive behavior that emanates from a position of pride. Holding firm and belittling others in the process prohibits all opportunity to uncover better perspectives, ideas, and decisions. Despite how the other person acts toward us, we can defuse the situation and benefit from a position of humility in the way we respond.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” — Proverbs 15:1

The conversation becomes healthy when you are using other perspectives to actively disprove your own ideas in search of the best position or outcome. Humility turns the discussion from an argument to a more productive debate of ideas. In the end, you must answer for yourself, do you want to be right or do you want the best outcomes — you can’t always have both.

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