Two Big Secrets to Stopping Unproductive Conflict Before it Starts

Our relationship with conflict is really messed up. We create unproductive conflict all the time – either actively or passively – that could be stopped before it even starts…

by Bob Tipton

It’s time to fix our perspectives about conflict.

Conflict is a needed element in driving for and achieving the best possible outcomes between and among people. The absence of conflict is a terrifying thing – described accurately by the term “group think” – where no one is actually questioning the validity, currency, depth, relevance, or appropriateness of decisions and directions. It’s the equivalent of creating “zombie-like” agreement, where no one steps forward to say the “emperor has no clothes…”

We need difference of opinion. We need alternative viewpoints. We need disagreement – as long as all of it is focused on making things better, faster, cheaper or more beneficial.

However, conflict can quickly become unproductive in one of two ways:

1) When we fall into the trap of “being triggered” – when our fight or flight needs rush forward (we feel threatened), or when historic situations have far too much influence over our present-moment interactions (we use automatic responses). This is what I call “autopilot-based unproductive conflict.” (I’ll talk more about this in a bit…)

2) When we consciously avoid it. Some of us will spend hours, days, weeks – or even longer – avoiding conflict that could actually provide value. As a result, we create “passively unproductive conflict” by keeping the hard conversations in the shadows.

 The High Cost of Conflict Avoidance

In my work, I’m always fascinated by the massive number of people who would rather spend hours, days or even weeks ruminating over a potential conflict – rather than taking steps to address it. A study from the authors of Crucial Conversations reveals that conflict avoidance is REALLY expensive:

Employees waste an average of $1,500 and an 8-hour workday for every crucial conversation they avoid. These costs skyrocket when multiplied by the prevalence of conflict avoidance. And, 95 percent of a company’s workforce struggles to speak up to their colleagues about their concerns. As a result, they engage in resource-sapping avoidance tactics including ruminating excessively about crucial issues, complaining, getting angry, doing unnecessary work and avoiding the other person altogether.” (

Now, some personality types (extreme introverts, for example) will have more difficulty in stopping their conflict-avoiding behaviors. However, regardless of where you are on the conflict spectrum (Evel Knievel on one end, and the VERY conflict avoidant on the other), changing our relationship about conflict is helpful. Think of conflict as a necessary ingredient in great outcomes. After all, how does one make scrambled eggs? By exerting active, intentional conflict with the eggs, that’s how.

I actually had someone ask me once, “Why are you going to that meeting? They’re just going to disagree with us!” I thought to myself – “I’m counting on that! I look forward to the conversation!” Then again, I know I may not represent the “typical person” – in that I will normally run straight toward disagreement – on purpose! Yes, I’m not normal – but, I’ve come to rely upon conflict as a tool. It’s something that helps to create extraordinary outcomes. It can be the same for you too.

Address Your Triggers That Produce Unproductive Conflict

Next, let’s address the other big secret related to the other kind of unproductive conflict – when we’re triggered – either by feelings of being threatened or when our automatic, conditioned responses take over.

Triggers come in a variety of forms. It could be seeing a particular person’s face, or smelling something attached to one of our memories, or receiving an email, phone call or text from a specific source, or seeing a meeting notice pop up – really, it can be virtually any type of stimulus. And then – if it is truly a trigger – our autopilot presents us with a conditioned response… It could be fear, anger, anxiety, tension – but rarely is it a positive response.

Many such triggers get ensnared into our relationships – especially relationships involving strong feelings like those between spouses, and between parents and children.

Here’s an example – teenagers, especially young teens. Any triggers coming to mind here? Anybody find teenagers difficult?   Challenging? Frustrating? Alas – all of those feelings are “learned…” There’s nothing inherently challenging about a teenager – if you put the potential conflict involved with raising them in perspective.

The job of a teenager is to break free from their parents, and to begin establishing their own distinct identity. However, too few parents honor what their teenage kids are doing, and as a result, these parents actually work to drive unproductive conflict as a result. We create buttons for each other – guilt buttons, shame buttons, sarcasm buttons, anger buttons – and often, the closer the relationship, the more we feel empowered to push the button!

And – the responses to the buttons get hard-wired into our minds – like a light switch. Push the button, on goes the light. Trigger our teenagers (through sarcasm, belittling, shaming, anger, etc.), cause unproductive conflict.

That is, until we do something to interrupt the circuit.

If someone pushes our button, we have the opportunity to do something other than react. We can wait — about a one half a second is all it takes. That’s the length of time for any stimulus to go all the way through our prefrontal cortexes to bring in all of our executive decision-making functions that allow us to take different paths. We can stop the automatic response.

As to our teenagers, in that one half second, we can remind ourselves of just how crappy our own teenage years might have been, and how frustrated we got when our parents “pushed” our buttons. Maybe, just maybe, in that short interrupt between stimulus and response, we might find a bit of compassion, of understanding, of patience. And – it turns out that’s most likely the EXACT thing our teenagers are seeking! Boom. No more unproductive conflict.

It’s just a matter of inserting that extra half a second from stimulus and the response.

Try it. Try it here just for a moment. The next time you see a highly-charged Facebook post, news story, Tweet, or whatever – that has a viewpoint you vehemently disagree with – give yourself a half a second, get out of your emotional alligator brain for a moment and then let it go through a different path.

You may choose to have no response. I have to tell you that’s a healthier and happier place to be sometimes. Or, you may allow yourself to do some creative problem solving – and look for a better approach than using our conditioned responses. In any case, you’re giving yourself the time (again, .5 of a second) to explore other options. That’s a VERY good thing.

 Five Steps to Stop Unproductive Conflict Before it Starts

1) Step off the curb and address potential conflicts as they come forward – don’t wait, and certainly don’t ruminate.

2) If you find yourself trapped in conflict avoidant behavior, change your self-talk about it. Give yourself permission to view conflict as a productivity-enhancing thing. “Conflict is a tool to help us get better…”

3) Practice higher levels of awareness when it comes to being triggered. In other words, recognize (even if it’s after the fact) that you’ve been triggered, and you are about to, or are in the midst of, or have just done what you’ve always done.

4) Treat yourself with compassion for the times that you are unsuccessful in handling conflict immediately, and/or the times you allow yourself to be triggered into unproductive conflict.

5) Begin to predict your potential responses – either conflict avoidance or being triggered – as you plan your day, week, etc. If a situation with someone is likely to create fears of conflict, or create the possibility of a trigger, coach yourself through making a plan ahead of time.

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