Taking the fear out of conflict

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” – Tony Robbins

Do you fear conflict? 

Most of us do in some way, shape or form but through my work with teams I have seen the real power that healthy conflict can have and I am on a mission to help take some of the sting out of conflict by changing people’s perception of it. 

In this article I hope to take away some of the negativity around conflict and help you to understand it is just another part of life and you can handle it. 

Conflict is inevitable! 

We all have different opinions, tastes, experiences and circumstances, and these all affect how we see the world and therefore the decisions and choices we make. 

How often have you met someone and thought “wow you see the world exactly the same way I do”?

Rarely!

So, if we are always at odds with one another, why is it that we struggle with conflict so much?

Simply put it is fear, a fear of losing what we have or of not being good enough, of losing face or being laughed at. There are many things we fear.

Many of you may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which detailed the things we need to have to feel fulfilled as humans.

Tony Robbins has created a list of 6 basic human needs which arguably drills down a little closer on those needs. Each of the 6 will have different significance for different people but all are present in all of us.

He starts with Certainty – the need to know that you can avoid pain and enjoy pleasure – anything that puts this at risk will cause you fear. We all like to know that we can avoid pain and have some control over that element of our life. If you are working or living in an environment that does not give you that certainty or challenges it, you will react and usually you will react badly. 

If your actions or the environment threaten people’s certainty you will get into conflict.

Interestingly secondly, we have Uncertainty and Variety – we as humans need to be stimulated, we need to experience a level of change and to explore the unknown. Many people are resistant to change but in reality, we all need to feel that things are changing or moving forward. We are a curious species that wants to explore the world and find out more, that is why and how we have evolved, it’s part of what makes us human. Removing or not providing these stimuli will cause conflict.

Up next, we have Significance – the need to feel unique, special, important or needed. Like it or not this is key to who we are however many of us do not want to admit this is important to us. This is an area that causes a great deal of conflict, often because it is not immediately obvious as we will mask or hide this need. 

Fourth we have Connection and Love – the need to feel a strong bond or closeness to someone or something. While this is more likely to cause conflict in your personal life than at work it is still very much worth considering. People can form strong attachments to elements of their job, workplace and colleagues that will cause pain if removed or broken. 

Next up is Growth – this represents our desire to increase our capacity, capability or understanding. As with uncertainty and variety as a species we need to be stimulated and are curious about the world around us, ourselves and our capabilities. For some the need to learn more and grow is very strong and will always be a driver for them. Again removing the ability or perceived ability to continue to grow and learn can cause conflict for people who have this as a core need.

Finally, we have Contribution – the need to give or serve the world. We all have this within us but for some it is their core need. We want to make the world a better place and serve our communities. This aligns well with Maslow’s Self-actualisation and the need to be the absolute best we can be. For some, the need to be working with a higher purpose or for a company with a strong community or ethical purpose is very important.

Hopefully you now have a clear guide to the things we all need to feel good and happy about life and how easy it is to upset any of these needs. We each value these needs with differing levels of priority which is why the phrase “treat others how you want to be treated” doesn’t work for me. People want different things and what is good for you may not be acceptable for them.

Conflict comes when one, some or all of these needs are threatened or the perception is that they are under threat. Once we start to understand that, we can start to deconstruct the conflict and find ways to reassure people or make them feel more at ease.

Sometimes it is hard to take the heat out of conflict situations but if you keep your cool, I guarantee they will calm down. Start by listening and asking simple questions. 

Do not react to what is being said, simply take it in and hear what is being said. 

Most conflict escalates because what we hear triggers fear or resentment in ourselves and so we become defensive or feel antagonised. Stay calm and listen, your time will come but for now all focus should be on letting them have their say. 

Don’t make an ASS out of U and ME!

Do not assume you know how or what they feel but listen to what they are saying and the words they use to describe the issue. This is not the time for you to pander to your own ego.

Now try and see if you can work out which of the needs are being threatened or put at risk. 

  • Certainty – Do they feel anxious about their future or safety?
  • Uncertainty and variety – Are they being asked to work alone or on a repetitive task?
  • Significance – Do they feel unheard, or that someone is getting better treatment than them?
  • Love and connection – Do they feel neglected and uncared for or about?
  • Growth – Do they feel under challenged or bored?
  • Contribution – Do they disagree with the values put forward, is there an issue of ethics for them?

While these are just a few examples it will help you to feel that you are listening and understanding a little better. This in turn will help them to open up about the issue that caused the conflict and take a big step towards a resolution.

So that’s it, conflict is inevitable but if you remain calm and listen you are halfway to a resolution.

Don’t be afraid, it’s just another conversation and the less preconceived ideas you have and the more you listen the better the outcome will most likely be.

Mhairi Richardson
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Mhairi Richardson

Mhairi specialises in coaching teams to help them achieve more and improve their wellbeing. Her focus is on building trust within the team and a combination of coaching, mentoring and facilitation and she can tailor the program to the needs of your business. She enjoys working with newly formed teams, established team or teams who just feel they should be achieving more. Mhairi is also a coach with a strong SME background, a focus on the detail, a high level of emotional intelligence and a strong desire to develop talent and grow high performing teams.