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Are you making all the wrong choices during conflict?

You didn’t choose to get into the conflict.

You just went to the weekly staff meeting to make your weekly report, as usual. But when you were presenting, a coworker who had been competing with you for the promotion you got blew up, saying “Your math is all wrong!”

Suddenly, you’re in conflict—and it’s uncomfortable. You’d like to hide under the table or bolt the room.

The good news is that while you can’t always choose to get into a conflict—sometimes it just falls upon you—you can choose how you respond.

Specifically, you can use constructive or destructive behaviors. The main difference between these two classes of behaviors is that constructive behaviors deal with the issues or ideas in the conflict while the destructive behaviors deal with the people.

  • Focusing on ideas and issues leads to solutions everyone can get behind. This can boost creativity and productivity, teamwork and create goodwill among team members.

  • Focusing on people—think blaming, accusing—gets you nowhere fast. This can “go south” rapidly could create long-term tensions on the team.

In this blog post, we will look at constructive and destructive behaviors in a conflict. What are they and what are the benefits/costs of each? This post will just be an intro to this topic. We deal in-depth with these behaviors and how you can promote them in your life in our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.

Constructive conflict behaviors

Constructive responses tend to keep things from developing into emotional, person-oriented conflicts. Think dumpster fire. Constructive behaviors come in two flavors, if you will: Active and Passive. The difference is that the active behaviors are those that everyone else can see/hear. The passive behaviors just go on inside your head (but lead to changes in how you interact with/speak to the others involved in the conflict).

Constructive behaviors focus on problem-solving, exchanging ideas, sharing feelings, and providing support. Think collaboration.

Here are a few constructive behaviors you can use to reduce conflict:

Perspective taking This is all about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to understand his/her point of view. This doesn’t always come naturally. We like to think we’re right. Can’t they see how stupid they’re being? This can be even more the case when emotions run hot in a conflict. People put up their defenses and wield their weapons.

The necessary mind-frame here is curiosity—admitting we don’t know all the details and leaning in to discover what they are. You seek first to understand, asking clarifying questions.

Expressing Emotions This is all about talking honestly with the other person and expressing one’s thoughts and feelings—without being demonstrative. It’s not always so easy—particularly in the workplace where you tend to have a “professional” front for everyone. It can seem weak to share feelings.

When you express your emotions (for example saying, “I feel frustrated right now”) it allows the other party to understand the impact this behavior had on your internal feelings. It can help facilitate compassion and empathy.

If you don’t express your emotions, they get stuffed and burst out in ways that can negatively affect performance and relationships at work as well as your physical and mental well-being.

Reflective thinking Get some alone time and consider the situation from every angle. What role did you play in fostering the conflict? What might be driving the other party? What is the best response you can make?

Giving yourself a moment to reflect allows you the opportunity to better respond to a conflict rather than react.

Destructive conflict behaviors

Destructive responses tend to exacerbate the situation and thus make it more likely that an emotional, person-oriented conflict will result. (Once again: dumpster fire.) The negative behaviors aren’t a response to conflict as such as a reaction to it. They come to the surface unbidden—usually because conflict triggers our fight-or-flight response. This is your body’s way of helping you in a dangerous or stressful situation. It’s our evolutionary heritage from our caveman days, when we had to keep alert for every possible danger. Is that rustling in the bush a predator?

We call this brain hijack. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood. Blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing all spike. Other changes include an increase in blood sugar, alertness, muscle tension, and sweating.

You’re ready: fight or flight.

Obviously, this is not the state you want to be in when you’re trying to turn conflict into collaboration.

As with the constructive behaviors, the destructive behaviors come in two “flavors”—the ones other people can see or the ones that are just inside your head. In both cases, they are collaboration killers.

Here are some examples of destructive behaviors (the ones that only fan the flames in a conflict):

Winning at all costs Conflict is not a zero-sum game with one clear winner and one clear loser. That’s not collaboration. That’s not our solution. That’s my solution. That’s winning at all costs—insisting on your solution.

No one likes being railroaded, so while they may acquiesce to your solution, they’ll put up roadblocks at every chance.

Demeaning others Unfortunately, most of us are pretty experienced at this—the roll of the eyes, the sneer, the belittling laugh. We often flow into these behaviors unconsciously.

Nip it in the bud. When you feel anger arising—for example, muscle tension, clenched fists, increased heart rate—take some time out and get some perspective. (See Reflective Thinking above.)

Yielding Yielding is sort of like avoiding, but in a way, it’s more dangerous. In yielding, the yielding person simply gives in to the other party, in essence throwing up their hands in defeat. This seems fine—everyone is in apparent agreement—but the yielding party is likely to resent your “solution” and try and sabotage the success of the project.

Leaders should take note if their teams continually give in to decisions without any pushback or feedback. Ask yourself, it is because they truly support the decisions or are they merely yielding because of fear or bullying?

Wrapping up

Remember you always have a choice in how you respond to conflict. Do you choose constructive behaviors such as expressing your emotions calmly and being the first to admit their role in the conflict or do you choose destructive behaviors such as demeaning others or just giving up?

The choice and the result are up to you.

Want to learn more? Check out our workshop The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.


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