Is your low tolerance for conflict holding you back?

by | Coaching, Conflict, Leadership, MDM Blog, Uncategorized

Stepping out of a meeting room with a colleague, we continued our passionate debate on the best way to develop our first line leaders. We were mid-design; pulling together a new program for the business on leadership development. We’d just been tossed out of the meeting room as our time was up. As we walked back towards our open plan desks where the rest of our team sat working quietly, we continued our spirited debate about the program. We stood next to my desk for a few minutes, each making our case and listening to the other. Finally, my colleague had to leave and headed off to another meeting. As I sat down at my desk one of my other colleagues came to my desk and asked if I was ok. I was bewildered.

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Because the two of you were really going at it, I thought you might be upset.”


I was a little confused. In my head, we’d just been debating the pros and cons of our approaches to the same piece of work, and we were making progress through the discussion. It wasn’t until a little while later when another colleague asked if I was ok and gave me a similar explanation that I started to wonder if we had both been a little too argumentative or direct in our approaches.

I sent a message to my colleague and asked if she was ok. She answered much the same way I had ‘Yes, why?’ When she came back to her desk, I pulled her aside and told her that I’d been asked by a couple of people if I was ok after our conversation. She was also bewildered; both of us believed we’d been debating the topic with the intent to get the best solution. Neither of us felt upset or offended by the conversation. In fact, we’d both quite enjoyed it. It had sparked new ideas and a more creative approach.

Tolerance for Conflict

This is an example of what happens when people have a different tolerance for conflict. While we were quite enjoying ourselves, our teammates, who weren’t as comfortable with conflict, actually found it quite distressing. Let’s be clear; there were no raised voices, name calling or aggressive verbal sparring going on. It was passionate debate with a purpose.

I often have coaching clients say to me that they shy away from conflict, or they avoid it all together because of how uncomfortable it makes them feel. I try to help them understand these beliefs, and the behaviours aligned to these beliefs, can have some serious negative consequences. They limit our opportunity for growth and continued learning, and can actually restrain our creativity and our ability to make good quality decisions.

Below are some points I generally share with my clients, helping us to reframe how we think about it. 

Understand the distinction between TASK conflict and RELATIONSHIP conflict

This one can be a game changer! Relationship conflict is personal, generally emotional, and filled with friction and animosity. It’s about the other individual and not about the work. You are so busy with your negative emotions towards this other person, that you can’t challenge each other on the work. Ongoing relationship conflict negatively impacts productivity, performance, creativity, and psychological safety in a team.

Task conflict refers to what my peer and I were doing – sharing thoughts on how to improve a piece of work, a process, or a strategy. It helps us find new perspectives, stretch our ideas and surface competing perspectives. Task conflict allows us to bring a diversity of thought to the discussion, surface doubts and keeps us curious about our knowledge gaps. It allows us to keep learning.

Did you know that teams with high task conflict and low relationship conflict are more productive, innovative and better at making smarter choices?

Reflect on your conflict style

How did your family deal with conflict? Was it normal to spar with your parents and siblings over dinner or was this frowned upon? What are you comfortable with? What are you uncomfortable with? What is the link between the approach you learnt growing up and your approach to constructive conflict at work?

Research shows that parents who argue respectfully and constructively generally have kids who feel more emotionally safe. These kids have grown up with friction being a key part of their life, and have learned how to dish it out and how to take it. In the process they have developed their creative muscles.

Understand your tolerance for conflict, and push yourself out of your comfort zone

Think about the type of work you want to produce and how task conflict could help. Research clearly shows that when we enter into task conflict, and comfortably challenge each other, we get a better outcome (see Think Again by Adam Grant and read the chapter ‘The Good Fight Club’ for more information on this).

Adam says:

Productive disagreement is a critical life skill, it’s one that many of us never fully develop.

 Think about the conditions that will help you enter into a spirited debate

My conditions include:

  • There is a deep level of respect and trust between us.
  • We are both willing to listen, take on what the other is saying and work towards a solution.
  • The issue is important to both of us. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t bother wasting my energy arguing with you.
  • It feels safe to be vulnerable you. We’re exposing our knowledge, and in turn, our knowledge gaps. We’re willing to get into the arena and throw our thoughts out there, do some mental gymnastics and see where we land.
  • We have a similar tolerance for conflict.

Having these conversations actually helps me feel a sense of connection to the other person because we have shared this vulnerability.

So, what next?

Understand what your conditions are for a good verbal tussle and find your people. Start here, where you can test yourself and then slowly push yourself a little bit further. It’s ok to be uncomfortable. Just like any muscle, this one needs to be exercised in order to grow.

“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy.”

Who wants to live an apathetic life? Find that thing that sparks your passion and enter into a respectful disagreement with someone. Listen, learn and grow.