Conflict doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.

The situation is paralyzing in every sense of the word. I enter a meeting or work conversation with a certain expectation and criteria for success. Most likely, I’ve done my research and prepared for the person or people I will be interacting with. The readiness gives me ammunition for possible responses, retorts and balls to be thrown out of left field. In my mind, I shouldn’t be caught off guard by anything that happens.

Only, something unexpected does…and that’s when I’m paralyzed.

PrintIt’s not my fault, per se, just the result of a chain reaction starting in my amygdala and ending with high blood pressure and blood sugar (yes, the fight-or-flight syndrome causes me to up my insulin injections). I get dry mouth, shortness of breath, tunnel vision and a loss in hearing. No wonder I shoot my mouth off and lose control of the situation.

Reminds me of the bard Mike Tyson, who said, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

This was the subject of an amazing conversation led by the great Lyssa Adkins in the January meeting of DFW Scrum. In her talk, titled A Step-by-Step Guide to Changing Everything About Handling Conflict, Adkins not only wowed me with some insights into managing conflict in the work place. She also validated that this common-sense approach lined up with Agile principles and proved that if we take a few simple steps, change is possible:

Change your mindset on conflict in the work place. I prepare for every possible scenario in my head because I want to avoid any possible conflict. We’ve been taught that conflict is bad, because it is the seed of discord that can splinter teams and products into oblivion. Adkins showed that’s just not the truth with a quote that I’m sure has been shared hundreds of times after her sessions:

“Get insanely curious.”

In my hubris, I have made my mind up what the solution to an issue should be. I’m not even curious that another answer is possible. By embracing curiosity, I rid my mind of bias towards solutions and instead focus on possibilities. That open-minded approach — along with some effective deep-breathing techniques we practiced — allows me to remove myself from the short-term, problem-solving and move to the second phase of better conflict.

Focus on facilitation instead of mediation. It took me a bit to understand the distinction she was trying to make, but the difference is subtle. Mediators concern themselves with the content of a conflict, as opposed to facilitators concerning themselves with the behavior of both sides. By “doing conflict well,” we can keep our head above whatever fray.

I’m sure most would agree to this line of thinking, because I know I was shaking my head in agreement. Problem is, my good intentions to keep calm and stay out of it get dashed against the rocks when certain triggers enter a conflict.

My team is sacred, so any insinuation that they were at fault immediately sets me off. I also take umbrage when I explain a situation to someone, only to have them ask me a few minutes later to explain it again. In fact, there’s an entire list of items that trigger my amygdala. If I were to take the time and understand more about what sets me off, as opposed to preparing for each meeting’s scenario, it would put a lot of time back in my schedule as well as focus better.

By focus, I mean that I should focus on my personal issues and take responsibility for how I respond to them. That kind of accountability readies my mind to do conflict well. Knowing this, however, isn’t the last step.

Scoop some heaping spoonfuls of grace out to everyone in the room, including myself. Now that I can teach myself to take a deep breath and understand what sets me off, I’ve solved all my problems, right? Understandably, this is going to take some time and experience to get there. My favorite quote of the evening was when Lyssa encouraged us to start immediately on these principles:

“It’s not important for you to wait for your view of conflict to change before you start doing some of these things.”

Scary as that sounds, we can be very lean in our approach to conflict resolution so long as we know we will have some bumps along the way. Our list of triggers may be only partially complete, or not fully understood. New situations by people with certain hold over our lives (i.e. my wife) that can somehow push our buttons regardless. Believe me when I say that all the deep breaths in the world can’t slow down every conflict with Karyn (that’s ok, though, she’s worth the effort).

When you start to grow a little in conflict-resolution maturity, there are some techniques to master when the training wheels are ready to come off:

  • Being able to gracefully call out the elephant in the room can normalize conflict as it arises.
  • Bringing conflict models to your organization can deepen understanding and take your company to the next level.
  • Talk about your goals around handling conflict on teams and add them to the norms we set.
  • Having conversations around roles before conflicts arise keeps the gray area from eating your team alive.
  • Learn how to handle conflict in multiple sessions. We all want to get things done in the allotted time of a meeting, but experience teaches that we need to be patient.
“We all like to pretend that conflict isn’t going to happen, but it does,” Adkins closed with. Scary as it sounds, as leaders we have gotten very good at identifying risks in a project. When it comes to interpersonal conflict, though, we put our heads in the sand and act ignorantly. The better we get at transparently inspecting and adapting our understanding of conflict, the more Agile we become.

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