How Avoiding Healthy Conflict Can Hurt You

Understanding your triggers, and tips for effectively engaging in healthy conflict in the workplace

Conflict between people is a natural, yet inescapable part of life. It is possible to learn constructive ways for handling conflict, in order to turn what has been traditionally seen as a negative experience into a positive one in any scenario.

As part of our Propel Her gender diversity initiative, we recently hosted an engaging workshop at our Propeller San Francisco office to discuss the topic of healthy conflict, facilitated by a dynamic group of thought leaders across different industries including:

The panel discussed how conflict can be beneficial, the physical triggers of conflict, and practical tips for keeping conflict healthy.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is typically defined as a real or perceived goal interference, clashing of opinions, or disputes between two or more parties. In fact, when asked to describe the first word that comes to mind when it comes to conflict, most carry a negative connotation - “stress,” “frustration,” “flustered,” misalignment,” “adversarial."

Not all conflict is negative, however. There are some clear characteristics that help differentiate good & bad conflict:

Good Conflict
Bad Conflict
Aims to improve the outcome of a situation
Denying the existence of a problem
Respectful, not personal
Giving up, not working towards a win-win solution
Those involved feels as though they can safely participate
Getting angry, placing blame, not listening
Manipulating others towards a certain outcome

While we often remember the painful, uncomfortable aspects of bad conflict, good conflict provides an opportunity to develop mutual respect, understand and strengthen relationships with our colleagues.

Avoiding conflict altogether in some scenarios could also be particularly damaging, especially when it comes to negotiating salary or a promotion or standing up for yourself in cases of unfair work delegation. 

Bad conflict can manifest itself when leaders seek to avoid conflict by manipulating others towards a certain outcome. This leads to long, drawn-out, frustrating psychological mind games. 

Of the real-world conflict examples discussed by attendees of the workshop that night, many included stories of former managers or colleagues who avoided conflict and tough conversations. Much of the time the conflict was over a raise, promotion or demotion that left those on the receiving end feeling disrespected, undermined, misunderstood, under-appreciated or worst of all: manipulated.

Understanding what triggers you

A negative reaction to conflict is caused by a “trigger.” As humans we tend to avoid conflict because it creates a perceived loss in 1 of these 5 categories: (easily remembered by the SCARF acronym)

  • Status – Where we fit into a hierarchy
  • Certainty – Clarity about the future
  • Autonomy – Control over your actions
  • Relatedness – Inclusion & connectivity
  • Fairness – Equitable outcomes

When we’re “triggered”, it creates a threat and activates the alarm center portion of our brains called the Amygdala. It’s responsible for our instinctual “fight or flight” responses to threats. It’s also where we house the bigger emotions like anger, fear, and anxiety. When we’re “triggered,” the part of our brains responsible for logic and reasoning stop communicating with the parts responsible for emotions. Our brains open up and flip out, which is where we get the saying that you've "flipped your lid." Dan Siegel explains how "Flipping Your Lid" works.

Adapted from Dr. Daniel J. Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain found in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation (Bantam Books, 2010)

Defusing your triggers

It is possible to avoid “Flipping Your Lid” by listening to your body’s physical alarms: increased heart rate, sweaty palms, hair raising on the back of your neck, the suddenly intense desire to be anywhere else but facing that person in direct competition with your desires – they’re all signals. 

Managing healthy conflict in the workplace starts with you and understanding these signals – commonly referred to as Emotional Intelligence - popularized by Dan Goleman’s 1996 book.

Unhooking from the situation
  1. Physically – Breathe, take a walk around the block if you need to
  2. Mentally – Reframe the situation, self-talk to ensure that you are not blaming yourself. Keep in mind that it’s not about you.
  3. Verbally – Find words or silence that will allow you to move the conversation towards the end goal rather than staying stuck in a petty back and forth
Practicing healthy conflict starts with courage

Once you understand yourself, your triggers, and how to unhook from the situation, then you can begin to put it into practice.  This is often the hardest part because it takes a blend of courage and confidence.

  1. Courage is the predecessor to confidence – you need courage to take those first steps and proceed despite intense fear or anxiety.
  2. Confidence is self-assurance predicated on a belief in your own powers and abilities. It’s also known as self-esteem. It requires a mentality of “I’ve done this successfully in the past, there’s no reason why I can’t do it again.”
Panelists’ tips for engaging in healthy conflict

Seek out strong mentors to use as a sounding board – a way to learn how they handle conflict. In moments where you feel ‘triggered’ take time to understand why you reacted a certain way.” 
 Monica Raj

Be aware of how much it (avoiding conflict) costs us - either by being passive and not raising the issue or approaching it the wrong way…. build confidence in having the conversations and you will see results.” 
Mona Nasiri

“It’s Imperative that you understand your organization’s core beliefs. Most embody respect & transparency and if you are an employee that embodies that, then it gives you permission to be transparent. Feel empowered to speak your truth. If your truth is you don’t know, then don’t be ashamed to say it. You don’t always have to have an answer. If your manager isn’t floored by that level of authenticity, then maybe it’s not the right place for you.” 
 Jenn Ellis 

Other tips for engaging in healthy conflict
  • Don’t keep “difficult” stakeholders out of the loop
  • Utilize different tactics for different people
  • Triggered = a perceived loss or threat – ask thoughtful questions
  • Deliver bad news in person or via video conferences 
  • Be mindful of your own boundaries
  • Know what you’re in control of
  • Check your internal narrative – avoid recalling past experiences
  • Pre-emptive aggressiveness is never conducive
  • Use constructive listening
  • Mimic the body language of the other person to make them feel comfortable
  • Share a mutual frustration or annoyance if you don’t have anything in common
  •  Avoid disrespect or inflammatory language 

These tips are a lot to remember in the moment and it won’t be perfect the first time you try engaging in healthy conflict. The key is to not give up if it doesn’t always work the first time.

To help makes this exercise second nature, we’ve developed a handy booklet to help walk you through the elements and write down your thoughts in a constructive framework to apply and remind you in any scenario you feel triggered. 

Click here to download your personal playbook for managing healthy conflict