Conflict At Work: Why I Love Conflict (and how you can turn hostility into collaboration)
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This is a series about how to deal with conflicts in the workplace. After all, tensions like these can drain our energy, distract ourselves from getting the work done, and in addition influence our motivation and our work commitment.

The power of conflict lies in how it clarifies the viewpoints that are in (and outside) the room.

BORING BUT TRUE: THERE IS ALWAYS A REASON FOR THE CONFLICT YOU ARE IN

Would you have asked me if I liked conflict 10 years ago, I would have said “yes” while meaning “no”. I would do anything to avoid it. Actually, I used to dislike people who always argued. Let’s say, you meet her (true story):

I remember how I was in this (tensed) board meeting. I was not looking forward to it. Why? I would propose a plan to the rest of the management team to do XYZ. As soon as the topic came, she would look at me. And burn it down. I knew it already, and it happened. When nothing was left, she would try to pee over me. Figuratively, not literally, fortunately. She would continuously ask these highly critical questions that were meant to test if I was 100% sure of what I set out to do, and how it would benefit all, and if there was really not another way? I was annoyed. Could she not just be chill, for once? Say something like “Wow, it’s so nice you are taking this on you, how can we help and support you? What are you still figuring out?”.

At a deeper level of conversation, I am sure she meant it all good. I am sure she was giving her best so that it would succeed. After all, you need to care about something in order to bring this challenging side of yourself into it, right?

SEEKING CONFLICT MAY BE ABOUT TESTING YOUR LOVE, DEDICATION, AND COMMITMENT

Two years in my relationship. When discussing plans for holidays, I would start with calling out the drawbacks first. I did exactly what she [the challenging board member] did to me back then. I took the initiative for granted. Why would I tell I appreciate the idea, isn’t that what we both assume anyways? Isn’t it by criticising that I adopt your idea de facto, as a starting point?

Apparently, and this is something that I have had to learn, this stating the obvious – that you love someone, that you care a lot about someone’s well-being, that you wish the best for the other and yourself, and that it is your intention to figure it out, together– is what is often lost in conflict. We tend to let unnamed what is most important in our relations.

When I start a conflict, I do either not feel heard by the other, seen in my needs and sacrifices made, or taken seriously for what it is I am saying. Sometimes, especially with clients, I seek a confrontational style to wake up someone, to, as it were, have someone “come out” with their anger. After all, anger is energy we can work with. What emotion is underlying? How do you keep your anger in? In what way do you divert it, making life harder for yourself and others?

It is aggression that we often tend to suppress in our work lives, though it is with power plays that it sneeks out. Who is the boss here? Who decides here, really? Hatred, violence, blind aggression are all unfortunate expressions of love, loyalty, and sensitivity towards something bigger than ourselves. How far can I play with you before you draw a line, thus I know where you stand, thus I know I can trust you to be honest with me? Can you handle my deepest essence?

In my personal learning process, I noticed how I would be very mean towards facilitators I did not know (thus trust) yet. I would make condescending remarks, make ‘under-the-belt’ jokes, and ask them challenging questions. Do they “own” this way of working? Have they lived through their own sh#t with this? Obviously, the underlying question was not if they knew what they were doing. Instead, I wanted to be assured they will stay with me, also in my darkness. Are you mature enough so that I can come with everything? Do I not need to hold myself back? Can you handle my strenghts and power? In order to “test” this, I would poke them, until I was assured they would stand by me, wherever I would take them or wherever I would find myself. Will you really help me find the way in this place where my thinking shuts off and where I do not have a clue on what I am doing? Can you hold me, please? Can you guide me and discover what it is I can do in that –for me– very vulnerable, unknown place?

WHY WE FORGET TO MENTION OUR DEEPEST LOVE AND LOYALTY WHEN WE MANAGE CONFLICTS

When we seek conflict, we are often loyal to something bigger than ourselves – to a value, to our inner truth, to someone who would suffer otherwise. So, why do we tend to “forget” this underlying layer when in a conflict?

  • There are lots of stereotypes around showing emotions at work: are you then still professional and fit for the job?
  • Big chances are that (childlike) emotions “take over” the rational (adult) way of speaking out what we experience
  • Small things can become exceptionally big when they are experienced or not spoken out for already a long time
  • Why would you state the obvious when both of you were there when you said ‘yes’ to each other this one day?
  • Sometimes it is just AWESOME to be unreasonable – why spoil “the moment” by speaking it out so directly?
  • We feel the other person needs to suffer as much as we do, as a way to make it up, as a sort re-balancing act
  • In the heat of the moment, our perception may not be as crisp-clear as when we cool down and take a break
  • Access to the underlying feelings may be blocked as we are fixated on the emotion that the other is receptive to
  • The feelings we attribute to another, and we thus direct outwards, protect us from our worst enemy: ourselves
  • It requires a great deal of courage to stay present with one’s inner world, while in contact with another person
  • Practice makes perfect: why should we give up our perfected strategies to get what we want, for, uh, what now?
  • By focusing on the wrongdoings of the other, we most likely do not feel our own, inner hopelessness or despair
  • Staying present with both our inner worlds and with those around us, requires emotional fitness, thus practice
  • As soon as we realise conflict is about our own pain as much as about the other’s pain, it’s not that fun anymore
  • It hurts to feel how much of the conflict is about the pain we inflict on ourselves (compared to what others do)
  • When we stop pointing at the other, there is no way out than to realise how we need to change ourselves first
  • You feel naked/vulnerable when you express your need– you can get hurt if the other does not want to meet it
  • We are so engaged in “the game” and corporate politics that we do no longer see the bigger picture or context

CONFLICT IS AN EXPRESSION OF LOVE (OR LOYALTY) TO SOMETHING BIGGER THAN OURSELVES

Why we do not express our vulnerability depends on the (work) culture, our own confidence in staying in that place, and if it is functional to move the context you are in. Our parents or those who raised us are often our first examples. Not only do we get the genes from them, it is also the social conditioning –their rules of life– that we often copy-paste.

I needed to learn that it was possible to have a conflict, and yet, stay together. When I was younger and there was a conflict in the family, for example between me and my mother, the “freezing cold” treatment I got, or the being sent to my room, was not like saying “You are still welcome.” Rather, it said something like “If you disagree, you cannot belong here, too bad!”

You are not your context, though your context can largely determine your level playing field. Trauma’s within the organisation, or in your family, especially those that are not mourned properly, affect the next generation children and employees. At an unconscious level, these personal and family fields merge together with the complex social field of organisational relationships. Where they meet, they find a balance. Where they divert, conflict may as well be born.

It is like growing a tree: it needs earth, sunlight, and water to sustain itself. Absence of any of these will limit its growth capacities. Though this metaphor goes for people as well (we need attention, be heard, contribute meaningfully), fortunately, we are not trees. That is to say, we people can move to healthier (therapy and work) environments. But only when we are aware of these dynamics, when we’re courageous enough to listen carefully, and face our blindspots.

VISITING THE VULNERABLE PLACE BEYOND THE CONFLICT IS WHERE THE REAL MAGIC HAPPENS

A lot of internal conflicts are fought out with others in our surroundings. These can be loved ones, colleagues, friends, or even with our clients. As long as you are not aware of the patterns, the circles that you run will keep on repeating themselves. The same drama reproduces itself over and over again. Key is to figure out what walls you love to run into.

When I was born, it was policy that you would be kept in the hospital if you were born too early. In my case, it was only two weeks, yet that is still a lot for an innocent baby who was in his mother’s womb for nine consecutive months. How sudden this separation then is! In my everyday life I regularly run into the pain of people leaving me. Take for example that someone cancels his or her presence in a workshop of mine. I get sad and ask myself “Why do they abandon me?”. Or, take for example when a client does not call me back. Then I ask myself “Do they still care about me or forgot about me?” Even though I know these things often have nothing to do with me, it still feels like I am setting up a pattern, one I know a bit too well.

Though trauma’s and conflicts can be of a very personal nature, often they are embedded in more powerful forces, the situation we are born into. After all, it is the social givens that at times boost us and at other times block our progress. When we take over a job we step into the place that was managed by another earlier. What was the history then? What if your role is new and it needs to “earn” its place in the organisation? What if no one gives you any space?

BEYOND PERSONAL CONFLICTS LIES A MUCH BIGGER WORLD: THAT OF THE SOCIAL SYSTEM DYNAMICS

Would we look a bit deeper into my family history, the above-described patterns of loneliness, sudden separation, and death, they all repeat themselves. While families have their unprocessed trauma’s, which family members consciously and unconsciously pass on to the next generation, so do organisations know similar traumatic events. For instance,

  • when the emotions are not felt by those who were in the situation (they felt it was not possible to “come out” with their burnout stories, or the timezone and zeitgeist did not allow them to ‘whistleblow’ certain versions of reality)
  • secrets in the social systems are held back from public scrutiny and/or there have been no witnesses to the pain, e.g. when fired employees are not thanked or appreciated, or our products cause victims no one ever talks about
  • sudden or structural cases of abuse, negligence, violence, or abandonment by some or all of the members of your tribe: both victims and perpetrators are loyal to rebalancing the benefits once incurred at the costs of others

In the case of one of the above scenarios, the most sensitive members of the next generations in families or the next generation employees, will pick up the unprocessed emotional inheritance, and sometimes suffer. Why? Everything needs to be in balance. In organisations where people are suddenly fired, re-structurings are pushed through the throats of people without them having a say into it, a sudden death of a colleague, without the mourning, the ones who stay within the firm, become more likely to become loyal to those we ignore, the pain we suppress, and the patterns that keep us reminding of what was once not fully seen, heard, or shown. Though history is like drawing without an eraser, when we are aware that today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions, we can find the energy leakages that prevent us from working in the present moment. What trauma and longing connects all of us?

My client’s representative walks up to the wall. Part of him is attracted to the only one spot in the room where there is no art piece hanging, but a left-alone rope. My client is worried about the representative in the constellation. Why is she holding on to it? His heart knows exactly what is missing in this spatial picture: a lack of spirit. I notice a smile on my face. I feel a lot of gratitude for witnessing how my client’s personal sensitivity and the organisational mission –to bring back the spiritual heart to the Western society– align this perfectly. This is way bigger than the sum of us. This is a dynamic that transcends today’s corporate work engagement strategies. This is the nexus where your personal calling comes together with the societal, environmental, and organisational soul. This is flow. This is where pain transforms into power.

THE PAIN IS WAY LARGER WITH THOSE WHO SEEK CONFLICT THAN WITH THOSE WHO THEY MAKE SUFFER

This statement seems paradoxical. Who, after all, wants to be a victim? Well, more people than you may imagine…

I was once told about a research in which people were asked if they rather be the perpetrator or the victim. Most respondents said they would prefer to be the victim over switching with the perpetrator’s faith. “Why?” the researchers asked. In most cases, the explanation was that they would not want to walk with the heavy load of the perpetrator. There seems to be an intuitive understanding with people that those who are most violent must also suffer most.

Interestingly, the story also goes that in certain local tribes in Africa, where someone kills another, or does a crime, that the whole community gathers around the person. What they do? They give him as much love and attention for as long as he or she needs it. Their philosophy is that someone must have lacked this connection to him or herself, otherwise he or she would not have done something like this to another tribe member. Someone must be in a lot of pain then, right? The idea is that humans need healing through other humans. There is simply no other way than with contact.

In the conflict mediation theory Deep Democracy, they like to say there is a “terrorist line”. It is the stages wherein a conflict escalates. It starts with making jokes about someone, talk behind one’s back, followed by ignoring someone with silence and the breakdown of communication. Once that stadium has passed, and one is still not listened to, or does not feel heard, or taken seriously, the open conflict stage starts to unfold. War is the end result. After all, once you have tried everything you can see, what other option than becoming a terrorist is there?

Let me make a note to avoid confusion on this: I am not defending acts of terrorism here. All I do is relating the phenomenon to deeply emotional and human processes, some of which we structurally ignore. The result of “pushing certain views and interests away” creates in my view systemic failures in building an inclusive world, one wherein everyone matters. Unfortunately, by avoiding the pain that goes with learning about our blindspots, we keep unhealthy patterns in place. That is not only a waste of energy, it also is a waste of human potential, creativity, and joy.

FIVE PIECES OF ADVICE FOR YOU TO DEAL WITH CONFLICTS AT WORK AND FOR WHEN YOU ARE AT HOME

  1. Breathe in and out. Make sure you are centered and connected to yourself. Turn on your senses: do you still feel your feet when around this one person? Can you smell and hear the little sounds around you? Do you still feel the rest of your body? Where do you feel the issue, where does your body block? Are you still breathing in and out?
  2. Ask yourself where the theme of the conflict touches you. Do you know this pattern? What from? Can you already see how you have contributed to the emergence of the situation? Are you ready to admit your mistakes, take responsibility for your deeds (whatever good reasons you had)? Are you ready to be the first to bow your head?
  3. Separate the people from the issue. Often we take things too personal. “Be hard on the facts, but soft on the people” is what I mean here. Speak about how you care for the relationship, that you are going to stay, but that you disagree, or would like to discuss something because you are afraid of X or because you wish Y for the two of you.
  4. Open your eyes for the different layers in communication. Separate for example your personal histories from the present moment and the future. Separate the facts from the feelings, the judgments from the needs, and the strategies from the requests made. Practice an open attitude. Figure out together what is going on exactly.
  5. Discuss with others how they perceive the situation. What of that interpretation is true for you, what not? Do you notice certain processes that indicate something (with me, for example, as soon as I start to complain about someone or something, I need to discuss it openly with the person in question, and not ignore it any longer).

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: INVITE CONFLICT TO WORK WITH YOU, THUS HARNESS ITS HIDDEN TREASURES

While you take the above with you, you need to experiment with what works for you, and be “pro-actively” patient.

I remember like yesterday how people looked at me when I said that there may be a deeper story beyond the angry e-mail of their manager. Their eyes said something along the lines of “Are you nuts? He is like that!” I continued to ask questions like “Do you know what triggers your manager exactly? Do you know what he cares so deeply about?” They had no clue. No one thought of asking him. After a while, encouraged by their colleagues, one team member opened up communication with the manager. The manager told the team about the bad experiences he had had with regards to the reporting earlier. Now that they knew this, they could now also think along. For example, why would the manager not bring in the experts when presenting the results to the board? Wasn’t that more meaningful for all involved?

Last but not least, do not forget to see the love and loyalty beyond someone seeking a conflict. Instead, be creative at harnessing the energy. Rather, use criticists as a sounding board. And be forgiving (without the arrogance please) for the way they express what is important for them. After all, it takes practice to stay with yourself, the other, and the issue at hand. The key of this all? Find and appreciate the minority voices, and let these enrich the majority opinion. Let the wisdom of the few enrich and shine light upon the blindspots that limit both our individual and collective potential.

When I am confronted with people with resistance in a change trajectory, I ask them if they would like to be the conscience of the project. If they want to keep me sharp on when we drift away. I am not doing that to “get rid of them” or to “side-track” them. Rather, I am using the love and care they hold for what I may not yet see. I am reframing their scepticism and redirect it to contribute to the project, rather than to destroy whatever it is we are searching for. I know that, as soon as they are with me, that they will be as loyal to the new project as they used to be to the old values, of which some need indeed not be forgotten in the design of the new organisation. Besides, all experiences need to be heard and acknowledged, right?

AND LET’S NOT FORGET: BUSINESS IS PEOPLE WORK, WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT

Respect for what we see and feel holds true for our own families as much as it does for our corporate communities. After all, today’s business organisations are world’s most complex mixes of interpersonal networks and social dynamics. It is only when we open up for this (family) business reality, that we perhaps find ways to engage more effectively, increase employee retainment, and can make people commit to something that is definitely worth it.

Would you like to know more? Contact us. Oscar Westra van Holthe is the CEO and founder of BLOCKBUSTERS consultancy. In these blogs he shares his insights around working with social dynamics in the business context.

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