Why are we scared of conflict?

The life changing power of real talk at work.

One thing that you get used to growing up as part of a Jamaican family is how to deal with conflict. My grandad was a larger than life character who absolutely loved a debate. On everything, but especially his passion, sport. He followed every single sport and would often launch into an attack on anyone who disagreed wih him on who was the better team, the better player, what was the best goal. And anyone who disagreed with his analysis on a given match was brave, let me tell you.

It was like a game to him, almost an extension of the sport itself, but to those on the other side the experience wasn't always such fun. It was serious stuff! Some of these debates went on for hours, days even. I'm not even exaggerating. There were very strong feelings expressed and a good dose of stubbornness, delivered in a thick patois accent, which always got richer and louder in these heated exchanges. He'd be cursing and tutting his teeth in vehement disagreement.

It was quite something to watch as a child as I tried to work out if it was a good thing or not, too young to decipher the line between passion and anger. But it did teach me that conflict is normal, we don't always agree and it's good to express how you're feeling. And it has made me unafraid of stepping into challenging conversations and somewhat fearless of dealing with issues head on. I love a good clearing.

It saddens me to see others trapped in the unexpressed. I came across this interesting blog which highlights how in our workplaces especially we feel unable to fully speak our truth.

They draw out two distinct cultural ways with conflict. The 'nasty' culture that uses fear to shut down challenge. And the 'nice' culture that uses denial to positively (passively aggressively) silence the voices that don't fit their identity of 'everything is great here!. In my experience the nice culture is the trickiest to navigate because of the denial of there being any issue to solve. It's classic gas lighting.

As we start on the road back to life post Covid, I have no doubt that we will be needing to handle conflict better. Amongst the feel good posts on linked in, there's also an emerging conflict narrative of 'us and them' that we will need to find ways to resolve and integrate.

The one most talked about in my circles is that between the furloughed enjoying the summer and the over stretched, burning out workers that remained. But look a little deeper and we can see several others. Those for whom working from home as been a nightmare and those who don't want to go back to long commutes and noisy offices. Those who've flourished in their 'home retreat' and those who've felt broken by social isolation. Those who've felt scared by the virus and those who've been more liaise faire. The parenting experience compared to those without kids. I'm pretty sure by digging deeper, we'll find more.

One of things we'll most need to give proper attention to how we come back together. It simply won't be enough to come back. We must ensure that we really invest time and energy in thinking about the process of reconnection and integration. Critically, this needs to be in ways that do not leave things unsaid. This is a breeding ground for conflict and tension to sit just under the surface. If we do not address the need to share experience, understand one another and learn together, we are asking for trouble.

But more than that people and businesses have grown and needs have changed. The relationships we left behind won't necessarily work for us now and moving forward.

I was recently introduced to a concept called Relationship Anarchy which I fell in love with and am starting to use. It is essentially a framework for working through conflict by supporting each side to speak to their needs and to find a resolution that works for all. What's so beautiful about it is the way it gives everyone a voice, but also asks everyone take responsibility for their own needs. And as a result we have newly reconnected relationships which have consciously and intentionally worked through conflict yet without needing to take my granddad's approach! It's also a perfect way of exploring unconventional and new forms of relationship, which arguably is what we are all looking for right now.

I think we could benefit from a bit of anarchy to reset our relationships so they come back stronger. Our relationships to offices. To working hours. To our leaders. And to each other. And while we are at it we can fix the things that were problematic long before this all started. It's a golden opportunity to rethink which I hope we don't let slip through our fingers.

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