Seeking Conflicts

In design school, we used to work in teams on various projects. Working together with others was an important skill we needed to learn (since we never learned it growing up). Having come from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and with different strengths, it was imperative for us, using our own creative problem-solving approach, to find out how we worked best together, as it would directly impact the result of our process.

Ironically, it was only through having creative conflicts that we were able to harmoniously work together to complete those projects.

I remember one of our earliest assignments as a cohort was to create a charter of sorts that guided us through how we were going to work together, what was acceptable, and what wasn’t. It was a mutually set of agreed-upon guidelines that we articulated together and were in consensus with. Of course, we went through a creative process to come up with it.

There was a bigger group (the cohort itself), and then there were 3–4 teams within it. When working in teams, we had a number of constructive conflicts, but we had a process to guide us. You see, a conflict wasn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s about how we went about it. Having conflicts were a necessary part of ideation and process. The last thing we wanted was groupthink; when everyone is thinking alike, someone is not thinking.

For instance, there were phases in ideation when we were required to come up with ideas, and the focus was on the quantity of it (while we deferred judgement). When we were done exploring and exhausting all possibilities, we evaluated our ideas as a group, together. I called this process, Explore, Evaluate, Execute, which was based on the fundamental principles of divergent and convergent thinking.

During ideation, we detached ourselves from the ideas, regardless of whom they came from. There was no “my idea” or “your idea” during this whole process. Rather, the ideas simply served as the means through which we looked at the bigger picture of trying to define and then solve a service design problem.

As I learned in design school, conflict was the very basis of our progress in an environment where good ideas and innovation could thrive.

How many of us work with others who actively seek to prove us wrong (so that we may be right)?

It’s convenient to be surrounded by people who share similar values and beliefs, where our ideas only seem to get reinforced and validated by others who believe what we believe. We inevitably find ourselves in echo chambers and thinking silos, while we rarely appreciate our own ignorance.

More often than not, we tend to confirm our biases by putting out our viewpoint and defending it while ignoring others. It’s called delusion — we simply take things to be true, particularly in the face of all evidence saying otherwise. We are so afraid to be proven wrong, but that’s exactly what we need to seek out so we can learn and grow together.

It’s not in our default nature to actively seek out conflict. Most of us want to live devoid of any conflict — in fact, we may even go to great lengths to avoid it. But is that in our best interest?

I wrote earlier:

The thing is we are so afraid of having conflicts in our relationships and in our organizations that we run away from them because we don’t know how to constructively manage our thinking. We want to avoid having arguments, avoid potential confrontations because it’s easier to keep the status quo than to challenge it; we might even take pride in our non-confrontational status.

Conflicts create opportunities for us to think together, be creative, and solve problems — and ultimately, to make the world a better place.

Come to think of it, the best teams in companies like Apple, IDEO, et al. seek out conflicts proactively before they converge on potential products/services, and that’s a good thing

Now, I think there is both good conflict and bad conflict. With the latter, we need to seek out ways to resolve negative conflicts in our relationships. Bad conflict can also be equated with unnecessary drama, and we could all do with less of that in our lives. We need to seek out healthy conflicts instead; we can use them to gain a better understanding of our situation and cause.

We tend to run away from conflicts because we think it might lead to confrontation, which we might want to avoid, but a conflict need not be unhealthy, provided you have the right environment and process to share your thoughts and advance your mutual cause.

F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly said:

The number-one test of a first-rate mind is its ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time while continuing to function.

Here are some ideas for seeking out healthy conflicts by ourselves and with others (who we love and trust):

When you are working by yourself, there is a time for you to explore your ideas and evaluate them later. The problem occurs when we try to think and do at the same time, which never works. It never works when you’re doing creative work, and it never works in your meetings.

Argue against your ideas by playing devil’s advocate to see a contrasting view.

When working with others, the most important prerequisite for us is being open to change our minds. Unless we are prepared to be wrong, we will never come up with anything original, but this requires fostering an environment where ideas are encouraged rather than judged. It’s not a big deal when we detach from things, and we shouldn’t take it personally in those cases, because it’s not personal.

We need to find others who have different strengths and viewpoints from us. More importantly, we should have confidence in others about their investment in advancing our cause — we should be able to trust them. This ensures we have a safe environment where we can share our ideas and have them actively proven wrong, which in turn gives us the confidence to be right.

Here’s something else I wrote previously:

Seek out people who disagree with your idea or thinking. As it turns out, good disagreement can be central to your progress. It is only by not being able to prove that your partner (or others in your organization) are wrong can you give them the confidence they need to know they are right. Of course, it’s important to have think-partners who aren’t echo chambers and who are good at having healthy conflicts.

We can have healthy conflicts in relationships to understand each others’ view points. We can even do monthly checkins with our partners, giving them space and a safe environment where they can share what’s on their mind, what’s working well for them, and what could be done better. This only results in understanding each other better, improving relationships as a result.

The point is not to enjoy your disagreements, but to get really good at them. Keep emotion at the door and turn on your rational brain.

There is no “winning” in a conflict. The only goal is to learn and grow together, which can only happen when you have a solid relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

Start early. Schools often have elocution competitions to encourage healthy debates on various issues. That’s how kids start to learn those skills, but even then, only a handful of kids get this opportunity to learn and participate, when it should be a required skill for all students to learn and practice.

Kids also need to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflicts. They should learn how to seek out the former and resolve the latter.

We need to teach these skills to both kids and adults to have a thinking organization and a thinking world. Even when these students carry those skills into an organization, they are discouraged from having those conflicts. Organizations fail to think not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t — because people inside them are too afraid of conflict.

In order for organizations to not just survive but thrive, good conflict should be the basis for decision-making in their teams. True innovation requires a healthy disregard for being wrong, but this should really be part of an organization’s culture, where we are comfortable with having healthy conflicts, arguments, or debates. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for creativity.

A few years ago, I learned that one of my strengths was to live in harmony. I even prided myself on it.

While we can use harmony to resolve unhealthy conflicts (or at least neutralize them), it’s not always the best thing to live in harmony. There are times when we need to seek out conflicts — albeit in a healthy, constructive way — to advance our cause, learning, growth, or what have you.

It could be as simple as getting together with a friend and expressing what’s on your mind without being judged. It’s only when we are open and put ourselves out there by sharing our ideas with those we love and respect that we can learn from others and have the confidence to improve. There is nothing wrong with defending your ideas as long as you remain detached from them. I am a big proponent of having strong opinions held loosely.

Heavy healthy and constructive conflicts leads to a better understanding about things. Not only that, it improves the end result by leaps and bounds.

Remember, the end goal is to advance the understanding for both involved, not obsessing over being right about your perspective.

We need to learn to have these conversations more easily, and learn to defend our ideas by remaining detached from them.

With all that said, there are certain times when avoiding conflict is warranted. It could be that the other person is more interested in simply finding flaws in your argument without the higher learning that comes with advancing the cause — when it deviates from being constructive and starts to become about us personally.

That’s the point at which it would serve you better to walk away, as no good can come from it.

We need to actively seek disconfirmation. We need to find different ways of looking at things in order to disprove ourselves. We need to find people different from ourselves — different in their backgrounds, experience, and thinking — and find ways to engage with them.

There is no way out — the obstacle itself is the way forward. Rather than running from it, we need to seek it out for the mutual advancement of our cause, and as a byproduct, also improve our relationship with the other person.

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