Our brains are intricately wired for survival, tailored for a world from millions of years ago when imminent dangers demanded our “flight or fight” instincts. These instincts, guided by our amygdala, were paramount for survival back then. But in today’s complex social and professional environments, they can sometimes hinder our ability to make the best decisions. For more refined, thoughtful decision-making, we ought to harness the capabilities of our neo-cortex, the more “evolved” part of our brain.
In this post, I’ll highlight the issue, explore our typical responses to conflict, and introduce a unique approach I call “standing in the fire”—facing conflict directly and skillfully.
Standing in the fire to overcome our natural aversion to conflict
Various studies underscore this conflict-avoidance phenomenon. For instance, in relationships, research published in the Journal of Family Issues states that around 82 percent of relationships have moderate levels of conflict or greater. The CPP Global notes that about 85 percent of employees experience conflict in the workplace. At the same time, the research reveals that 70 percent of employees believe managing conflict is a critically important leadership skill.
The ramifications of such avoidance can manifest in myriad ways. Drawing from two contrasting scenarios—one from the corporate world and another from my personal life—I’ll elucidate how this dynamic unfolds.
In the corporate scenario, I consulted for a burgeoning billion-dollar enterprise. This company, amidst rapid growth, grappled with escalating market demands. This growth necessitated an evolution in the executives’ decision-making, skills, and enhanced cross-functional teamwork. However, despite the evident need for a revamp, the CEO pointed out a critical hurdle: the C-suite’s hesitation to confront rising inter-departmental conflicts. Their conflict aversion, rather than fostering a harmonious environment, led to shallow dialogues that merely skimmed the surface, leaving core issues unaddressed. This inefficiency subsequently hampered overall performance.
Contrastingly, on a community level in rural Connecticut, we faced a polarizing issue concerning the town’s future direction. A decision loomed that would challenge century-old traditions. The town was split: a faction ardently defending the status quo and another championing the necessity for change. Instead of fostering dialogue, the town was rife with contention, with each faction solidifying its stand and broadening the rift.
These scenarios, though distinct, carry universal relatability. Faced with conflict, a pervasive tendency emerges where individuals cocoon themselves within echo chambers of like-minded peers. This insular approach not only amplifies their beliefs but also distances them further from opposing perspectives. It’s akin to erecting mental fortresses, where from their ramparts, they volley verbal assaults, further exacerbating divisions.
To address these issues head-on and promote constructive conflict resolution, it’s vital to first recognize and dispel common, detrimental behaviors:
- Entrenchment: Rather than immersing oneself in diverse viewpoints, many dig their heels into their established beliefs.
- Isolation and Polarization: There’s a tendency to amplify our own beliefs while isolating and sidelining opposition, thus creating ideological silos.
- Defensiveness: An overwhelming emphasis on self-preservation manifests through self-righteousness, inflexibility, and a constricted perspective.
- Avoidance: Many mistakenly believe that withholding feedback preserves harmony. In contrast, it often festers negativity and unresolved tensions.
But how do we pivot from these pitfalls to forge constructive confrontations? Here’s a blueprint:
- Seek Integrative Solutions: Aim to identify a third alternative that harmonizes differing perspectives.
- Broaden the Discussion: Focus on overarching communal objectives, transcending immediate disagreements. For instance, considering the town’s example, the central question could be, “How can we unify the community, regardless of our divergent views?”
- Champion Open Communication: Muster the courage to deliver feedback, both candid and constructive. Direct, yet respectful communication is the cornerstone of mutual trust and understanding.
In essence, curbing our primitive “flight or fight” reactions is pivotal for fostering leadership and nurturing relationships in contemporary society. Progress lies in transcending mere avoidance and confrontation. By adopting collaborative, empathetic approaches, we pave the way for a brighter, unified future.