In a previous post, I started a discussion about productive and unproductive conflict, also known as cognitive and affective conflict, respectively. In this post, I want to dig a little deeper into the “good,” productive conflict.
Think of all the times you’ve disagreed with another person, whether it was a heated argument or a simple debate. What motivated you during the conflict? Was it to understand the opposing viewpoint or was it to deliver a crushing blow that would leave your opponent emotionally crippled and unable to continue?
One recent incident comes to mind. A loved one and I were at loggerheads over a simple misunderstanding that had led to me missing a scheduled appointment. As we debated whose fault it was, the argument devolved into whether or not I made a call from my house phone or my cell phone. In the end, from whence I initiated the call didn’t make a whit’s worth of difference as there was no dispute that I had actually made the call. But, rather than focus on the issues that would help us restore harmony and resolve the matter, I stubbornly insisted upon being right about where the call came from.
Cognitive conflict centers around ideas and not around emotions. That does not mean that it is productive to shout down a colleague by declaring “That’s a stupid idea!” Rather, it is about exploring alternatives and proposing solutions. It is about setting aside your emotions, even if you feel strongly about your own ideas, and being willing to admit that another’s idea might be better than yours. Three keys to fostering cognitive conflict are:
- Possess constructive intent. Have you ever been given criticism that was genuinely of the “constructive” variety? If so, you know what a constructive intent is. It is to have the best intentions for the individual and the organization in mind. It means showing respect for differing points of view and keeping your comments and your thoughts focused on being constructive.
- Listen actively. How many times have you been in midst of conflict and find yourself barely listening to your colleague? I know what you were doing, because I’ve done it…you were already formulating your next argument rather than actively listening to what the other person had to say. Active listening requires more effort, more thinking, and action. When the other person speaks, you listen, hear, and seek to understand. But that’s only half the equation. The rest of the process requires you to summarize and paraphrase what you heard. Listen and respond, “What I think I hear you saying is ….” “Do you mean to say ….?” This exchange provides the your colleague with evidence that they were heard.
- Be prepared to “lose”. Even if you have constructive intent and you actively listen, you might still slip into unproductive, affective conflict if you aren’t prepared to “lose.” By lose, I mean that it is possible that your idea is not adopted. Be prepared for that. Doing so requires humility and maturity. If you don’t think you can handle the loss, you should be prepared to ask yourself what it is that you are trying to “win.” Are you trying to win for winning sake or is the success of the team and organization more important. Only you can answer that.
These three keys won’t ensure that your conflict is productive, but you can rest assured that, without them, you will be engaging in unproductive conflict. As you engage in conflict, think about what you are invested in. Are you invested in personal victory or group success? Your answer will define the type of conflict in which you are engaged.