“In surveys of European and American executives fully 85% of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise; afraid of the conflict that would provoke, afraid they could get embroiled in arguments they did not know how to manage and felt that they were bound to lose. 85% is a really big number.”
Margaret Heffernan, ‘Dare to disagree’
Most people instinctively avoid conflict. What makes us prefer ignorance? In Margeret Heffernan’s brilliant TED talk ‘Dare to disagree’ (below) she illustrates how the best partners aren’t echo chambers, but that they challenge and question to stretch ideas and perceptions for more innovative, authentic, creative conversations.
We need to be prepared to change our minds. Our perception of conflict, ie associations of aggression, fear, anger, sorrow, is a learned perception, and we are not doomed to obey our own destructive habits. In another TED talk, Dana Caspersen digs more into how destructive conflict works on a personal level – the plasticity of the brain, how and why we react and that when we ‘hear attack’ and react with a counter, the real issues remain unaddressed. This same mechanism and the same outcomes can be seen in conflict world-over, from kitchen to board meeting.
Through practicing a different approach to conflict, (processing and responding rather than reacting emotionally, listening for what the person/people in question is really saying underneath their own reaction, watching body language, etc), we start to change the neural pathways within our brain and make room for a complete overhaul of this learned fear of conflict. The more people addressing the issue the further this overhaul can spread, turning artificial harmony completely on its head and allowing struggling teams to bloom into those who trust each other, debate, innovate and beat the competition.