WWCode Career Nav #14: How Conflict Can Have Value: When Handled Right

WWCode Career Nav #14: How Conflict Can Have Value: When Handled Right

Written by WWCode HQ


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Noelle Notermann, Senior Engineer at Target, discusses the benefits of conflict if managed properly. She shares examples of conflict strategies and outlines the different methods that can be used to mindfully interrupt it.

I first became excited about studying Conflict Fluency and learning mediation by working in community and student leadership development. I've worn many hats and still volunteer as a community mediator. Engaging in healthy and productive conflict can improve our lives and well-being, not to mention it being a positive force in society. We will get to a core definition of the conflict and how our Conflict Fluency skills can help. One of the important aspects when thinking about conflict is that we tend to associate it negatively in our minds. If I asked you to think about some words that come to mind when I say conflict, you might say something like scary, avoid, or overwhelming. I hope to highlight why it can have value. I would like to reference an article called The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution by a conflict scholar named Bernard Mayer. "Conflict is not in itself a bad thing. Conflict can help build community and help people face and address clearly and consciously the many difficult choices that life brings to them. Working through a conflict can be an important bonding and growth-producing experience."

We're talking about a conflict that is managed well. A lot of times, the examples that we've had in our own lives, our own experiences, is a conflict that is poorly managed, that doesn't go well. The conflict that is managed well, healthily, and productively can be a valuable step toward meaningful change. Some benefits of conflict include seeing other people's perspectives, building skills to better work through conflict in the future, paving the way for better communication overall, building deeper, richer relationships, having both parties get their needs met and having open and honest communication. Conflict happens when human difference becomes an issue. Differences are natural. Regularly, we move in and out of tiny conflicts all day long, internal and external ones.

Once you gain some awareness, you'll realize that you're doing it all day long. It's not a problem until there's an issue there. One person feels unheard, one person wants the other person to change their perspective or their behavior. To help better understand conflict, to deconstruct it, we're going to take a three-dimensional approach or three-pronged approach. We're going to think about conflict at the perception, feeling, and action level. Perceptions are the facts of a conflict, and also that conflict can be internal, or it can be external. It can be inside yourself, or it can be with another person or another group. The feeling aspect is the emotional connection that we have. If we feel like there's a conflict, then there is. I want you to remember that conflict shows that we care deeply about things. When we care deeply, our emotions can get involved, get activated, and things can escalate. The action component of conflict, or behavioral component, is the steps we take to reveal or present a conflict to the other person or group. It's also what we do to meet our needs while working through conflict. 

Let's take a couple of simple examples. There is an open parcel of land, an open lot, near where you live. A developer wants to create a retail space that could bring jobs and tax revenue to the area. A local advocacy group wants a green space for the community. We can see that there's some incompatibility, incompatible needs and wants. Although they might both have the value of the community's best interests in mind, they might have that shared value, they're just approaching it differently.

An internal example is that you got that new software engineering job you wanted. Now you've got a little extra money, and you finally want to build your emergency savings. You have been living on a pretty tight budget for a while. You want a new device of some kind, you feel like you should splurge a little bit. Which path do you choose? We don't generally just jump into a full-blown conflict. There's usually a path or a journey. It starts with an incident of some kind, and then we can follow those three facets, perception, feeling, and action. Sometimes we end up in conflict; other times, we don't. 

Imagine driving a car, and another car cuts you off in traffic. That's the incident. What is your perception of that? One perception is they did that on purpose. A feeling that might flow from that perception would be anger. Then there's an action, a behavioral level, a reaction in this case. I'm going to honk my horn, or I'm going to cut them back off in traffic. At that point, we certainly are on the path of conflict, from incident to conflict. If we look at these facets of conflict, we have the opportunity to interrupt the development of a conflict at every stage. Let's take the incident again. You're driving, and someone cuts you off, but this time your perception is it was probably an accident, and they didn't see me. Then your feeling from that is, I'll let it go, I'm okay. Your action is to decide to drive home safely. In that path, we're not in a conflict. The Incident was the same, we went through the same facets of conflict, but we didn't end up in a conflict. We interrupted it at the level of perception at the very beginning. 

Again, driving in the car, someone cuts you off in traffic, your perception is that they did that on purpose. You say you know what, I have my tunes on, I have my coffee, I'm having a good morning, it's going to be okay. I'm going to let it go. You've interrupted it at the level of feeling. Maybe you're not in a space to do that if that morning you're not having a great morning. Somebody cuts you off, they did that on purpose, and you’re angry about it. Maybe you say a couple of words under your breath, but then you still choose to interrupt the conflict at the action point or the behavior point. You say I'm the better person, I'm the better driver, I'm going to ignore it and drive home safely. Now you've interrupted that conflict at the action level. 

We're never stuck on a path of conflict. Something can usually almost always be done about a conflict. Not that it will always be resolved, that's not reality, but we can choose a productive response that can help move the conflict toward a constructive path. Let's imagine a spark or lighting a match. You can light a candle in the darkness. Another path, you could take that match and light a campfire for camaraderie, warmth, and hopefully s'mores. You can take that match, and you can release the dragons. You can go scorched earth, bring out the flame-thrower and just let it all go. Sometimes we choose to escalate a conflict intentionally to give it more visibility or to help it get a higher priority for resolution. The core of many current social justice movements is intentionally escalating a conflict to make it more known. That's a valid and strategic action. 

Sometimes the response might be to do nothing in a conflict and let it mature and gather some information before you act. Sometimes we're in triage mode and just need to stop the bleeding. There is no single right answer when working through conflict. There is a spectrum of more constructive versus destructive choices and actions. Now that we understand a little bit more about deconstructing conflict let's talk about the skills we need to move through it. That's where Conflict Fluency comes into play. You may have heard other terms around conflict. You may have heard the term Conflict Management. That's not Conflict Fluency. We're not in charge of a conflict, we're not managing it, and it's kind of delusional to think that we are in charge of it. I don't appreciate that term very much. You may have also heard Conflict Resolution, but as I said earlier, you might not resolve anything. There are polarities, and there are intractable conflicts, so that term doesn't seem to resonate as well.

It's also not negotiation, where you say, I'll give a little, but only if you do first, or we can meet right in the middle. Those are not the skills of Conflict Fluency. Conflict Fluency is a set of skills and accepting that it's something that you can learn and practice and develop. It's a growth mindset, not something that we're born with or not. It understands how we show up in conflict. What is our conflict style, and what does that mean for navigating conflict? It's also building up conflict tolerance. I think this one is huge because we don't do it enough. It's awareness of all those little conflicts and practicing in them. The more you do it, the easier it can get, building up that conflict tolerance. This is a special one for engineers because I've added two other words to my Conflict Fluency toolkit since becoming an engineer. Those words are iterative and incremental, near and dear to any engineer's heart.

Imagine that there's a conflict in front of you. We tend to view conflict as a big ball of conflict, stress, and emotion. It might be all knotted and gnarly, and we just want to kick it down the street or hide it under a carpet. We don't want to address it. If that ball of conflict was a technical blocker, something we were working on, it might be equally tangled and challenging. We would take our engineering skills, and we would break that apart. We would find a small piece that we could identify and work on. We would try a solution, and we would document what we tried. If we needed to, we would bring in subject matter experts or other people to help until we had resolved the blocker. My hope in this engineering space is that we take those skills we learn and use every day in our work and shift them towards Conflict Fluency. Working through conflict can also be iterative and incremental. We already have the background to do that. 

Know yourself, understand how you show up in conflict, and also that your reactions and your feelings are natural, normal, or even just biological. If you're a person who, when faced with conflict, gets a racing heartbeat, fluttery voice, or sweaty palms, that's okay. It's not good or bad, it's just information to understand how you move through conflict. We need skills of reflection and re-framing. Ask questions and seek to understand versus seeking to win. Seek to connect and, ideally, maintain relationships. I think that can be a core part of mediation and Conflict Fluency. If people don't want to continue a relationship, then it might not be worth the time or effort to work through the conflict. Part of that is saying we do want to maintain this relationship, we want to work through this. Keep at it, keep practicing, and even do a dress rehearsal. 

Let’s examine one more example and work through some of these skills. Imagine that you are relatively new at a job. You're working with a more Senior Engineer on the team, and that person says something like, “You're really smart, much smarter than I thought.” That could be an incident of conflict. It also could be the seeds of impostor syndrome, or it could be a form of microaggression. We don't have quite enough information yet. Rather than reacting with those dragons or that flame-thrower, this is where we could lean into the opportunity to ask questions, one of those skills of Conflict Fluency. You could say, “Tell me more. What do you mean?” What if the response is, “I didn't pick this stuff up nearly as quickly as you are? I'm impressed.” Now we're in the lane of a poorly worded compliment, not necessarily in the conflict lane. This is where you can adjust and adapt your response. You're trying to get more information rather than jump in with a defensive statement. There's no right answer. I'm not giving you a script for how to move through conflict. I'm just giving you some examples of how you can use these skills to have more ownership in Conflict Fluency. 

Conflict has value. It's neither good nor bad, it's simply a part of human existence. It happens when our very human differences become an issue. Normally those differences aren't a problem, and we move through them, but when they become an issue, we can end up in conflict. Conflict takes a path, it has a journey from an incident to a conflict. You have the opportunity to choose your path forward. You have some agency, you have some autonomy, and you can claim some ownership in the process. As long as you stay aware, you can disrupt or choose to escalate, it's up to you. Conflict Fluency is a skill that takes practice, practice, and more practice. You can use your existing engineering skills to break conflict apart.