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Necessary Conflict

A quick sideways glance at my colleague confirmed that she shared the disappointment I felt in my own heart.

We were sitting in my office, conducting a final interview with a candidate we especially liked for an important position. He was multilingual, had years of cross-cultural experience, and a solid education. He had already spent several hours talking with my colleague, the hiring manager, about his ability to do the job we needed done. My involvement was simply to ascertain if he would be a fit within our organizational culture.

I had asked a question I ask of every candidate. “Tell me about a time you were able to resolve conflict with a coworker.” His answer, honestly, surprised me. “I’ve never had conflict with a coworker.” I tried rephrasing the question. I used an example from my own experience. He insisted. He lived in a conflict-free zone. That’s when my eyes caught those of my colleague.

Never trust agreement this side of conflict.

One of my rules is to never trust agreement this side of conflict. Wherever two or more people are gathered, there will be conflict. Whether you’re working on a school project, an agile business team, a discipleship ministry, or a marriage, if you’re around other people long enough you’re going to disagree about something. To pretend you have agreement before you’ve worked through the conflict is both unhealthy and unproductive.

For some people, the vision in their head when they hear the word conflict is of two people shouting insults at each other. That, of course, isn’t the kind of healthy conflict I’m talking about. Necessary, healthy conflict is ideological, about ideas, not personal, about people. For us to work well together, whether in a marriage, a ministry, or business, we need to be able to have open discussions about our disagreements. And we need to know how to do that without it being weird, uncomfortable, or personal.

There are at least four reasons people shy away from necessary conflict.

  1. They may never have seen healthy conflict modeled before. It could be that their only experiences with conflict have been negative and personal.

  2. When a team leader is insecure, they will invariably seek to minimize conflict because they think it reflects poorly on them or because they don’t know how to manage it.

  3. Some may avoid conflict because they’ve never been given permission to engage. I have a hunch that was the experience of the job candidate I mentioned earlier. He had been taught that conflict was something bad and couldn’t see a way to engage in healthy ways that lead to growth and understanding.

  4. It’s possible that a person would be unwilling to deal with conflict because they are apathetic and just don’t care or that they’re passive aggressive. Passive aggressive people will assure you there is no conflict and then turn around and act out behind your back.

Healthy conflict is necessary because it helps us make better decisions. During a lean economic time, I may think the very best thing we can do as a team is cut back on our marketing budget. When you explain how increased marketing will lead to more desperately needed income, I may change my mind.