Use, Don’t Avoid Conflict

By Malcolm Fleschner

Conflict. It’s a necessary part of life we all deal with, particularly, it seems, when we get together with family members during the holidays. Unfortunately, author and pharmaceutical sales consultant K.C. Warner ( doesn’t have any tips to help you get through Christmas dinner. She does point out, however, that whether it’s a family dinner or sales opportunity, learning to manage and harness conflict can help you achieve higher levels of creativity and success.

In a business context, Warner notes, conflict tends to produce change, which is an essential ingredient in organizational growth. Without conflict, stasis tends to set in and new approaches to problems that crop up are never discussed.

The first priority, then, is to recognize that there are two types of work-related conflicts: task conflicts and interpersonal conflicts. A conflict concerning how to approach a problem or concern is a task conflict. So if you’re discussing how to increase the number of attendees you might disagree over the proper strategy, but everyone should remain in agreement about the event’s goal.

A task conflict can turn easily into an interpersonal conflict, however, if one team member feels ignored or marginalized, rightfully or not.

So how do you make sure the conflicting energies among your team members spurs creativity rather than devolves into personal vendettas? Warner recommends the following five effective strategies.

1. What are we doing?
Begin team projects by establishing ground rules that let everyone know exactly what is expected of them. By explaining that you want people to be frank and open you reduce the chances that individual members will feel personally slighted.

2. Focus on the problem.
Personality clashes often lead to an escalation of the wrong kind of conflict. To forestall this possibility, clarify the facts about a situation so people have a solid understanding and are not operating on hearsay. Use nonthreatening questions to root out potential hidden issues that might undermine the team’s efforts

3. Issue reminders.
Reinforce the idea that everyone is working toward finding the best solution to the problem at hand at the beginning of every project. Make sure everyone keeps this common goal in mind and you’ll prevent interpersonal conflicts from snowballing.

4. Watch your body language.
Nonverbal cues and tone of voice communicate a great deal about your message. When discussing issues with other team members be aware of your body language to ensure your nonverbal cues match the spoken message you are sending.

5. Bring up problems early.
How many times have you wished you had confronted a problem as soon as it arose rather than waiting and hoping it would go away on its own? As soon as you become aware of trouble brewing, get it out in the open. This helps keep task conflicts where they belong – focused on the task.