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Reframing Conflict: A Simple First Step Toward Embracing Conflict

November 1, 2023

Hands making a frame in the sunny sky

Advice from an Institute for Conflict Management graduate

Written by Christi Beth Adams, Institute for Conflict Management alumna
“But I hate conflict!” I protested as I sat across from a professor from Lipscomb University Institute for Conflict Management. We had met for coffee to discuss the program and why he thought it would be a good fit for me. As a small business owner and co-parenting divorcee, there were plenty of instances professionally and personally where a fuller conflict management toolbox would be beneficial, but my conflict aversion ran deep. “And that’s exactly why you should pursue this,” he responded. He was right of course. The purpose of the program was to gain a better understanding of conflict’s nuances and explore how best to manage it. It was right there in the program's name for heaven’s sake.
The reason so many of us hate conflict is because we perceive all conflict as bad. The first step in embracing conflict is reframing the concept of conflict. Ask yourself this question: “What words come to mind when you think of conflict?” My guess is that your list of words is largely negative in connotation. When I surveyed classrooms, disagreement, fighting, discomfort, anger, and frustration were the first words mentioned. I would argue that this way of thinking is indicative of how the greater population feels.
If we bring this negative bias of conflict into our workplaces, then we will be ill-equipped to prevent conflict or manage it effectively when it does arise. In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni states, “Teams that fear conflict have boring meetings, create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive, ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success, fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members and waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management” (p. 204). Rather than fearing conflict, we must reframe our perspective on it.
The American Psychological Association defines reframing as “a process of reconceptualizing a problem by seeing it from a different perspective. Altering the conceptual or emotional context of a problem often serves to alter perceptions of the problem’s difficulty and to open up possibilities for solving it.”
Conflict -- a clash between individuals arising out of a difference in thought process, attitudes, understanding, interests, requirements, and even sometimes perceptions – is a two-sided coin. Conflict can be any combination of avoidable/unavoidable and healthy/unhealthy. Avoiding all conflict would be a mistake as much of it can be healthy, necessary, and productive. Although we may not think it instantly, we should consider conflict as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Reframing conflict is a simple yet effective first step toward embracing it.

Ask yourself:

  • Is there a conflict at home or at work that I’m avoiding?
  • Can I recall a time where a hard conversation led to growth or a deeper relationship?
  • Are there other experiences where I might reframe the situation and discover a new and helpful perspective?

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