I used to hate conflict. I avoided it like the plague. There’s nothing worse than that knot in your stomach when you feel that nothing good is going to come from a situation.
Recently, I realized that true growth can only come from discomfort. When I look back, I’ve learned something from the conflicts and challenges I’ve faced. Think about times when you have really grown and become stronger. It is almost never when you are in a place of comfort. It’s through discomfort that we grow and challenge ourselves.
Pari Karim, the Training Director for the Center for Conflict Resolution, explained why people tend to hate conflict. From a young age we’re taught to avoid conflict, but conflict is unavoidable. We expect a negative outcome, and facing conflict is a vulnerable process. However, Pari stated that conflict can lead to innovation.
She introduced the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode, which illustrates the various styles of conflict:
Competing – Aggressive, direct, you want to win and prove the other side wrong. It’s good for topics like policies, procedures, laws, justice, and safety.
Avoiding – Not trying to win, not aggressive, sounds like, “Let’s talk about that later.” Good for short-term strategies and knowing when to step back and pick your battles.
Accommodating – Sacrificing your viewpoint, giving in, and not getting your needs met. Good for building rapport, personal development, and for large groups.
Compromising – Quick fix, has a time and place, good for simple problems.
Collaboration – Strip the problem to the basics and build new with the foundational pieces. Good for big problems and program planning.
However, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode is not like other assessments, such as Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or StrengthsFinder. This assessment determines to which conflict style one tends to default, but notes that each style of conflict has its place, and we need to be strategic about how we utilize them.
Pari also talked about interest-based bargaining, where you ask yourself and the person involved what the needs and interests are behind the conflict. When you learn this information and are honest with yourself, you can better understand the goals of each person and the motivation behind it, resulting in higher productivity. When this information is absent, it’s easier to fall into power struggles, miscommunication, and frustration.
As I was riding home on the train, I was reflecting on our discussion. In addition to understanding the needs and interests in a conflict, I believe it’s also critical to have a solid relationship as a foundation, especially when it comes to our colleagues.
A few months ago, a manager at work, Kim*, and I had a conflict. She and I have a great relationship and often swap articles, book titles, and podcasts. At World Relief, we run English as a Second Language classes, and when we transitioned between trimesters, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as we had hoped. I called a meeting with staff members involved to debrief so we could improve the next trimester transition.
However, some of the staff members involved were on Kim’s team. She felt that my calling the meeting meant she and her staff weren’t capable of handling the issue without my management. Kim called me and was very upfront about how she was feeling: “I feel like your calling of the meeting came from a place of frustration, and it made me feel like you were upset with me and my staff as to how things were handled. But I know you, and I don’t think that was your intention.”
I immediately saw how the meeting could have appeared like I didn’t trust her leadership style, and I apologized, explaining where I was coming from. I wanted to get all of the involved staff in the same room, but next time I agreed I would talk with her first.
The conversation was hard, however because we had a solid foundation and relationship I believe it went more smoothly than it might have otherwise. We were able to settle the conflict relatively quickly, and to be quite honest, I felt even closer to her after the fact. Again, growth comes from discomfort.
While I no longer hate and avoid conflict like I used to, I still don’t love conflict and it still makes me uncomfortable. However, I’ve grown to learn that if we simply avoid conflict all of the time, nothing will get better. We will start resenting one another, innovation will be stifled, and progress will be hindered.
It’s nice to know that we can utilize all different styles of conflict resolution depending on our situation. Sure, we can use the avoiding style at times, but let’s learn to press into conflict, be vulnerable, and grow.
*Names have been changed for anonymity
Children and Youth Program Manager, World Relief DuPage/Aurora
Malita has over 8 years of non-profit experience. She is currently the Children and Youth Program Manager at World Relief DuPage, a refugee resettlement agency. Malita oversees case management for all children, an Early Childhood Program, school enrollments, and after-school, tutoring, and summer programming. In this role, Malita has created a new position to better support early childhood and a new volunteer position to better support families who need further assistance with academics and with navigating the American school system. She is also in the process of creating an office-wide mentoring program for staff to increase growth and development. Malita is also in the process of launching a Lean In Circle in her neighborhood that is comprised of 13 professional women. Prior to her role at World Relief, Malita was a District Executive at the Boy Scouts of America for three and a half years where she was responsible for recruiting more boys into the program, managing adult volunteers, and fundraising. She also worked at the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville as a Play Facilitator and School Programs facilitator. She also has cross-cultural experience through her experience teaching fifth grade in Mexico. Her education includes an M.A.Ed. in elementary education, a B.A.in English, and minor in communication from Truman State University, and holds an Illinois teaching license. Malita is a two-time breast cancer survivor, has a 4 year old daughter, enjoys reading, writing, watching the Cubs, and is currently training for her first tough mudder. Malita is a member of YNPN Chicago's 2018 Leadership Institute.