A Winning Conflict Strategy

Most people are averse to conflict, if not terrified of it. But it’s a natural part of any relationship. Being more effective in business often involves becoming more comfortable with conflict, even embracing it in ways that can lead to better collaboration and improved creativity.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are the authors of “The Beauty of Conflict,” a series of books about navigating conflict in personal and business relationships. As consultants and coaches, Campbell and Clarke specialize in helping clients address conflict productively through a process of introspection, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. They’ll share some of their expertise at Imaging USA 2021 in January.

Leaning into conflict

When passionate people discuss something important about which they have differing opinions, strong emotions can arise. It’s easy to slip into right-versus-wrong thinking, which isn’t productive. The resulting tension is created by the brain when it’s trying to reconcile opposing ideas.

Most people try to avoid this tension, but Campbell and Clarke say it can be put to work. “If you can hold that tension,” says Campbell, “new ideas emerge. This creates new neural pathways. We call it passionate listening. This is listening not just to defend your position, but listening with the potential to be influenced and absorb the idea in a whole new way.” And that can lead to productive dialog, creative collaboration, and new ideas. 

Adds Clarke, “We are suggesting that the key is to lean into conflict. Most of us try to get rid of tension, deescalate, manage it, avoid it. We think you need to get better at holding that space for the tension to be there, hanging out in your discomfort zone, so to speak, and then using that tension productively.”

Identifying your response

The first step in using conflict effectively is understanding your reaction to it. When you become aware of your usual pattern of conflict avoidance kicking in, then you can recognize the situation and start to change your thought process.

People react to conflict in different ways, often involving a few typical responses:

  • Fight. They get argumentative and obstinate.
  • Flight. They try to get out of the situation by any means possible.
  • Freeze. They shut down entirely.

Of course, most people would rather avoid conflict altogether, often opting out of tense situations using a few common methods:

  • Doing it all. Rather than dealing with the conflict, they dive in and do what they think is right, assuming everyone will thank them later.
  • Pleasing others. They bend over backward to prevent conflict.
  • Leaving the situation. They bow out entirely.

Moving through conflict

When it comes to moving your mindset to a place of active listening and collaboration, Campbell and Clarke suggest two key considerations:

  1. What do I have to do to get there? Slow down and take a breath to be present. Recognize what you’re feeling and stay in the discomfort, holding the tension. Be more conscious, visceral, and curious.
  2. What do I need to do to help other people get there? Acknowledge that you’re uncomfortable but that you want to understand their position. Be curious and willing to listen. This helps others drop their defenses and allows for the possibility of creative, collaborative dialogue.

“This is about expressing a level of realness,” says Campbell. “I’m showing up, taking my armor off, being vulnerable. That really helps people to see that I’m trying to connect.”

It also helps to name the feelings you’re experiencing and recognize them as normal. So often we don’t name the thing when we’re uncomfortable, say Campbell and Clarke. Instead we try to control the situation. It’s OK to be in this uncomfortable space, but if you hang in a little longer, you can collaborate and possibly create a solution that works for everyone.

Flattening stress

Building productive collaboration out of conflict doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be overrun by stress. In fact, it’s the opposite. To manage conflict productively, you have to reduce your stress so you can think more clearly. Studies show that people’s IQs drop by 10 to 15 points when they’re stressed. We literally get dumber.

Campbell and Clarke suggest a few simple techniques for managing stress:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Bring your attention to your feet, feeling them and wiggling your toes.
  • Make a low, vibrating sound as you exhale.

Maximizing conflict

Once you’ve reduced your stress, proceed by considering the three primary areas of conflict.

  1. Me. This area is all about consistency and self-awareness. Ask yourself if what you’re saying is consistent on the inside and the outside. Are you really aware of what’s going on inside? Take the time to understand how you are reacting to the conflict. Identify your response or how you may be attempting to opt out. Then go through the process to bring down your stress. Finally, open up and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
  2. We. How do you relate to the other person involved in the conflict? How do your attitude and actions affect the other person? This is important in a situation of conflict because we project onto the other person. To relate to others, it’s critical to understand how you process everything through a filter, through a story that you’ve created, and interpret it as a fact. If you can honestly assess your perspective, then you can open yourself up to new ideas. Be curious. Check out your story with others. Do they agree? Disagree? Does it still work? Are there alternative stories that make sense? Consider that there may be other perspectives that are just as valid for other people. Listen, really listen. Reflect back the content and the emotional tone of the discussion to the other person, and make sure they understand you’re listening. 
  3. Context. Put the entire situation into context. You may think you’re solving one problem, but the other person may be thinking about it differently. Consider how they are approaching the issue and temper your reaction based on the context of your interaction. When putting a conflict into context, consider what problem you are really trying to solve. Ask the other person, “Are we even trying to solve the same problem?” So often, mutual purpose gets lost as you fight over strategies. When someone is getting defensive or frustrated, the question to ask is, Why is this so important to you? Until you know what they want, you might be going at it all wrong.

Applying it to business

How does all this psychology and introspection help your photography business? The practical implications range from more effectively dealing with difficult clients to working better with creative teams. It also applies to the challenges of growing your business and shifting your work to the things you want to do and should do for your business. Those changes can be uncomfortable.

Will you let that discomfort force you into retreat, or will you lean into the conflict and forge ahead toward new possibilities?

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large for Professional Photographer.