Last year, I was working with leaders who had recently joined an Israeli company. One of them said to me, “Anett, I used to work for a Midwestern company, and now I’m working for a company that yells and pounds the table in meetings–you can even hear it on the phone! What do I do?”
“Well, what happens after those meetings?” I asked. “They all go out for coffee!” she told me.
This is a texbook example of constructive conflict. Yes, it might have been emotionally charged and intense, but everyone respected each other enough to be friendly afterward. You might feel that it’s hard to see conflict as anything but a barrier to communication, but if you use it the right way, it can be an effective tool. Here are some tips on how to do just that.
ATTACK THE IDEA, NOT THE PERSON
Intense conflicts can be civil. The key is not to let it get personal–which means making sure that you direct any criticism toward ideas, not people. Many of us know to avoid telling someone, “I don’t think you’ve done your research on this issue” or, “How could you possibly come to that conclusion?!” since these clearly sound like an attack on the person. But finding alternative phrasing isn’t always easy. When in doubt, delete any second-person (“you”/”your”) phrases from your vocabulary, and start with “I” phrase that zeroes in on the underlying concept. For example, “I struggle with that conclusion.” Now you can center the discussion around the conclusion itself–not the person who proposed it.
BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL WITH YOUR TONE
Sometimes what you say doesn’t matter as much as how you say it. And when you’re sharing a critique, you have to be especially mindful of your tone. My client’s colleagues might have participated in loud conversations–but those discussions weren’t overly emotional, sarcastic, or condescending. Tone isn’t about the volume of your voice; you can still be calm and collected while verbally putting someone down. As Fast Company’s Lydia Dishman previously reported, passive-aggression comes in many forms. For example, you might start off by using logic to point out the flaws in your coworker’s point–but if you end by saying something like, “You don’t mind, do you?” your coworker might read your tone as patronizing.
DON’T FLOUT CULTURAL NORMS
Some companies are more comfortable with conflict than others, and every company will have its own “rules” about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Those rules might not be written anywhere, but if you look at how your organization has dealt with conflict in the past, you can usually get a sense of how its culture operates. Some workplaces are comfortable with constructive conflict as long as it stays behind closed doors, and employees and senior leadership show a united front in public. Others embrace displaying their conflict openly. So stay attuned to corporate culture as well as societal norms. As my client found, the way his Midwestern colleagues operated was pretty different than the approach his Israeli associates took. Neither was necessarily “better” or “worse” than the other, but in order to have productive disagreements, he needed to adapt to those teams’ respective cultures.
FOCUS ON MAINTAINING RELATIONSHIPS (EVEN IF IT MEANS BITING YOUR TONGUE)
Remember, just because you disagree with someone’s idea, you still need to show that you value their input. This might require extra effort on your part–like being selective about when to voice your criticism. If you argue too frequently, others may find it hard to believe you’re doing so in good faith. If, on the other hand, you share your disagreement a little more strategically, you’re more likely to strengthen your relationships–and improve the odds that your criticism will actually register, without hurting feelings.
CALCULATE THE OPPORTUNITY COST
On the other hand, if you’re on the fence about whether to raise an objection, consider the possible downsides to not engaging in constructive conflict. What potential consequences will staying silent bring? Depending on your company culture, you may be viewed as lacking conviction in your ideas if you seem afraid to stand up for them. In that case, not speaking up could actually backfire. Not to mention, if you don’t voice your disagreement early on, you might be setting yourself up for a bigger explosion later by keeping your thoughts bottled up.
Needless to say, no two situations will be the same. If you’re unsure of how direct you should be–start by listening and observing. You can learn a lot just by paying attention to people’s body language and how they respond. When it comes to constructive conflict, context is everything. But whatever you do, just don’t let it get personal.