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Why Does Great Collaboration Require Good Conflict?

When did the term “conflict” get such a bad name?

Lynda McDermott

In my work with teams over the past 25 years all around the world, I have never found a high-performing team that did not have moments when team members disagreed, debated, or argued. These teams all had a healthy respect for the value of not only having differences of opinions or perspectives but also for having learned how to manage themselves as they worked through the discord or tensions precipitated by their disputes. Rather than being an enemy of collaboration, conflict is, in fact, a necessary requirement for productive and successful collaboration.

When people work together as a high-performing team—sharing information, looking at alternative courses of action, and making decisions together—they learn to give others on the team the benefit of the doubt when conflicts arise. Leaders can foster this by making sure they keep all team members in the “information loop.” They can seek all team members’ input when developing approaches for resolving issues. When people feel others are working for the benefit of the team more than for their own personal interests, then they will be more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt and find out what is happening before getting angry and shutting down communication.

Once the right climate is established, team members need to use constructive communication techniques to keep their conflict conversations moving in a way that facilitates collaboration. Several particularly effective communication techniques include reaching out, perspective taking, listening for understanding, sharing thoughts and feelings, and creating solutions.

Conflict communication consists of talking and listening. In many ways, listening is the more important of the two. A couple of behaviors typify good listening. The first is perspective taking, which involves trying to see things from the other person’s point of view. By trying to do this, you can learn new things about a conflict that may prove helpful in resolving it.

The second technique is called listening for understanding. This involves hearing what the other person has to say whether or not you agree with it. Most of us listen in order to respond. We hear the other person’s words but at the same time are judging whether they are right or wrong so we can correct the other person when we get the chance to speak. This type of listening causes us to miss many important points, and it generally causes the other person to get defensive. When you listen carefully, the other person will usually calm down and you will pick up ideas that can help resolve the conflict and improve the quality of your collaboration. When you have listened carefully to the other person, he or she also becomes more open to listening to you, which can make it easier to make your own points.

Once this sharing has occurred, you are well positioned to be able to explore new options for creating solutions to the problem you face. This search for options can take into account a variety of perspectives so that solutions will not be one-sided. Rather, they can be crafted in ways that meet all parties’ needs and generate sustainable solutions.

Conflict is a natural part of life. People recognize this but are often afraid to address it. When that happens, collaboration is hampered because communication withers. To achieve optimal collaboration, people need to be able to explore issues and debate points in a constructive manner. By managing conflict effectively, collaboration can be enhanced and its promise fulfilled.

LABCAST: Be sure to attend Lynda McDermott’s Lab Manager Academy webinar “Why Does Great Collaboration Require Good Conflict?” on Wednesday, July 9, or afterward at to watch the archived video.