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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.

Without conflict, it’s unlikely that we’ll have true buy-in across the board. We may all give lip service to whatever decision is made, but unless our hearts are in it, we won’t fully support it, and may even unconsciously (or consciously for that matter) undermine it.

Over time, engaging in necessary conflict builds trust. I am much more likely to support my spouse, my colleagues, my classmates, if we’ve been open and honest about our disagreements and worked through our differences. Even if I don’t agree with the decision that’s ultimately made, knowing my input was sought and trusted tells me that I’m valued and integral to the team.

Healthy conflict keeps us from assuming the worst. We never need to wonder what others are thinking, whether they have a hidden agenda, or if there is more going on behind the scenes than what we’re aware of. Knowing we’re all expected to put everything on the table minimizes the drama, turf wars, and politics that can accompany working together.

So, what can we do to encourage necessary, healthy conflict?

  • Be the initiator. It starts when someone has the courage to go first. It’s best if this is the leader, but anyone can do it. Start by simply stating the facts: you disagree with whatever idea is currently on the table. Explain that you respect the people involved, but you have a different opinion which you would like to share. If you get shut down, you might want to think about working somewhere else. More likely, the people around the table will be happy that you spoke up. They’ve all felt the same way at various times and will welcome the opportunity to have a real, authentic conversation.

  • Lead without defensiveness. If you’re the leader, you have a lot of influence on whether and how your team deals with conflict. One of the most important truths every leader needs to embrace is this: It’s not about you. Your job is to deliver results on behalf of the team you lead, the organization you’re in, the vision you have, the people you serve. Allowing, and even encouraging, healthy conflict is best for all involved, regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel for you, personally.

  • Silence = DISagreement. Typically when we look around the table for consensus we assume silence indicates agreement. One rather simple way to suss out potential conflict is to let people know their silence will be interpreted as disagreement. Unless you speak up and let us know you agree, we will ask you to speak up and let us know why you disagree.

For Further Reading

There are a number of great resources available on the need for healthy conflict. Two of the best are Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott and The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni.

If you’re interested in talking more about how to engage in healthy conflict, shoot me an email at I’d be happy to help you any way I can.


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