Transforming Talk at Work | April 2015


Dear reader,

It’s April in Minneapolis and winter and spring are in an all-out battle for first position. It has been 80 degrees one day and below freezing the next. A version of this conflict happens every year, and I am amazed at how nature always finds a creative way to resolve the discord. Until spring wins out, I guess I will just have to wait patiently and watch the creative unfolding of the seasons.

Springtime is a peak season for action in the workplace, as well. Many of us have an undeniable urge to expand and forge new professional ground. It’s an exciting time that has the potential for unparalleled partnership…or unmatched struggle. The outcome depends on a team’s willingness to lean into what I call creative conflict. I recently encountered a great example, illustrated by two local executives who I will call Jerry and Tanya:

As they prepared for their next product launch, Jerry and Tanya arrived at a major hiccup in the creative process. Marketing campaign proofs had just come in and the tone, key message and visuals were all off the mark. With only a short window of time until the campaign launch, tensions were high.

Jerry was convinced that the solution was to fire the outside ad agency and start over. Tanya felt that their in-house marketing team could salvage the expensive work and get the campaign back on track. Neither could move beyond their own fixed way of thinking. According to Tanya, Jerry was being inflexible and aloof. Jerry thought Tanya was overly optimistic and naïve. After discussing the problem on multiple occasions, the conflict was starting to feel insurmountable.

Although it was uncomfortable, Jerry and Tanya had stumbled upon an excellent opportunity to shift gears and walk into creative conflict. They made a choice to consciously let go of “my way” versus “your way” thinking and transcend face-value differences. They honored points of disagreement while making room for new and inspired solutions. Using creative conflict as an ultimate form of collaboration, Jerry and Tanya reached an outcome that was better than either could have arrived at on their own. Struggle transformed harmoniously, and their ideas sprang to life.

The next time you find yourself stuck in a disagreement, use the following steps turn conflict into creative opportunity.


Reverse Engineer: Creative Conflict

1. Take a walk. Give yourself some healthy distance from the conflict if things start to feel sticky. The best option is to get outside. The most important thing is that you give your mind time to wander and open.
2. After recharging, challenge yourself to find three fresh perspectives. That’s right, three. What is the issue from your colleague’s position? What impact does the conflict have on your team, customers and key stakeholders? What outcome would be best for the organization as a whole? Force yourself to see the bigger picture.
3. Re-enter the conflict situation and work to agree on a definition of the problem. Conflicts stem from a simple misunderstanding more often than you’d think.
4. Find something else to agree on. If you disagree on exactly what to do about the defined problem, find something more general that you can agree on – I call this “notching it up a level.”
5. Say out loud – to your colleague(s) – what you think they want, and why. Use the following framework: “If I believed that [insert what your colleague wants], I’d probably be thinking that [insert any theory that would support the colleague’s premise]”. Your theory will probably be wrong, and your colleague will need to correct you. That’s the point of the exercise! Take turns repeating this process to encourage clarity and understanding.
6. Allow the conflict to naturally morph into creative discussion. You are now more open to solutions and engaging in greater collaboration. Pat yourself on the back – you’ve earned it.


Digest This: Better Listening

Brené Brown On the Right Way to Argue at Work (Inc.)
Make listening a high priority – it’s a choice you have to make. Know what’s holding you back. Watch for non-verbal cues on both sides of the conversation. Start practicing these key strategies now, and read on for more insight and examples of really engaged listening.

Most Work Conflicts Aren’t Due to Personality (Harvard Business Review)
This article convincingly contends that situations are what cause troubling conflicts in the workplace, not individual personalities. Our human tendency to make snap judgements about our colleagues can often get in the way of real solutions. Put away the personality test and accept the ambiguity of real life.

4 Ways Leaders Effectively Manage Employee Conflict (Forbes)
Check out these common sense tips on conflict management. My key take-away: every conflict situation holds layers of opportunity and potential just waiting to be uncovered. Dig in for much more.

Joubert quote

My Treat: Words of Wisdom

This month, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes about creative conflict.


April is Workplace Conflict Awareness month. Let that be your license to address that difficult situation you’ve been meaning to take on.

Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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