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Conflict is Uncomfortable But Silence is Deadly

Conflict is a hard sell. No one wants conflict, not even us. Unaddressed conflict fractures your team, especially if you as the leader have not provided your team the skills and support to address it in a healthy way. When conflict shows up it creates discomfort and can break apart relationships and teams. Why, then, do we encourage conflict?

Because silence is even more detrimental than conflict.

Have you ever heard an idea at work and known it was either a bad suggestion or would cause more problems—and yet you said nothing?

You stayed silent because you didn’t want to make a meeting last longer. Or you decided that maybe you were wrong, they were right, and everything would be fine. Perhaps the person you disagreed with was a longtime teammate or even a friend outside of the office. Why upset the relationship?

Maybe nothing horrible happened, but what if it had?

When I, Susan, was in my twenties, I worked in a hospital as an anesthesiologist tech—essentially the social arm for the anesthesiologist and surgeon to the patient. I would meet with the patient outside the operating room and ask simple questions, check blood pressure, and make sure everything was set for the patient to go into surgery.

One patient was a woman about to have knee surgery. She told me how she had injured her right knee. The surgeon came in during our conversation, and I stepped back to let him examine her. He manipulated and poked at her left knee, and there was very little dialogue between them. Then he turned and went, and I came back to check in with the patient. “Didn’t you tell me it was your right knee that needs surgery?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Did you mention that to him?” I continued.

“He knows,” she replied, her voice a little wobbly.

“Hmm,” I replied. I wasn’t so sure.

I finished with the woman, and when I left her room, I noticed the surgeon standing nearby. I told him that I had been talking to the woman and wondered why he had been working on her left knee when it was her right knee that had been injured.

“Who the hell are you to tell me how to do my job?” he exploded. “You have no business even talking to me. Now, get out of my way so I can go operate.”

I walked away, rattled.

I was done with that case, and the day proceeded as usual. I tried to recover my sense of grounding but said very little to any other surgeons that afternoon. As I was leaving for the day, that surgeon stopped me.

“I shouldn’t have jumped on you. I was out of line.” he said.

I was so surprised that I grappled to find my words. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I guess I just wanted to check. I should have realized you know your job.”

“The truth is, if you hadn’t said anything, I would’ve operated on the wrong knee,” the surgeon replied. “I was in my operating mode and thought it was the left knee. She didn’t say anything to correct me, so I didn’t even give it another thought.”

I was stunned. I appreciated his courage, vulnerability and humanness to come back and apologize.

This is an extreme but powerful example. When people stay silent like that knee patient did, they risk negative impacts. It would be easy to blame the doctor’s bullying style as the source of the problem, but the dynamic is much more complicated. The choice to stay silent can cause considerable damage.

Silence is one of the biggest problems in relationships, particularly on teams. Each of us helps perpetuate the bad behavior when we stay silent or blame another person in our heads or behind their backs. Silence makes us a victim and them the villain.

It’s important to name silence as a part of the problem. Acknowledging it is critical to understanding that what appears obvious (that the problem is the bully or dominant team member) may not be the only issue. Yes, the bullying is a problem and should be addressed. However, getting rid of a bullying or trying to quiet the loudest, is only addressing a piece of the dynamic and not solving the bigger problem.

Silence, at its core, is failure to expose, express, or reveal a different point of view, which creates conflict. We aren’t comfortable with the energy of conflict and each deal with it differently.

Lack of conflict in the health care industry can and does injure and kill people. In businesses, it stops creativity and innovation, creating a slow death for organizations. In business, conflict is usually less of a safety issue and more of a strategic issue.

Let’s say you are facilitating a team meeting about a new product line. As the leader, you have a passionate opinion about the right direction. A brave soul speaks up to challenge your opinion—your “right” idea. You immediately react by challenging that person in return, and that creates a spark.

That spark is critical! And it’s uncomfortable, because we aren’t used to confrontation or have not been taught how to tolerate it. But when we opt in to it, that spark ignites the flame of creativity and innovation. It generates new, creative ideas and solutions.

But let’s say the brave soul decides in his head that you’re right and he’s wrong. “Never mind,” he says. “I’m good with your plan.”

Now his ideas, and the resulting new ones to emerge from the clash are lost. The team goes forward, operating on only your idea. You kind of like that, because you it feels good to be right, and you revel in that feeling of rightness (or is it righteousness?). The truth, however, is that new thinking has been pushed aside for you to get your own way. Hmm.

We have a strong desire to identify a right and a wrong. That right/wrong thinking is seductive. It makes us feel safe. It keeps us out of uncertainty, ambiguity, and the anxiety of the unknown. The world is clear, black and white.

But when you fall into the right/wrong trap, you don’t foster new ideas. Hand in hand with the desire to “just get along,” the right/wrong trap deadens creativity, innovation, and possibility.

Frankly, there is no safe way to introduce conflict. There is, however, a compelling reason to do so and a big upside.

Speaking up is worth the discomfort, even to the point of feeling anxious. If I’d not spoken up in the hospital, that poor woman would have had an operation on the wrong knee. I remember that situation every time I want to pull back into silence and safety. Even if avoiding conflict in your work or relationships won’t cause physical pain or injury, the outcome of your silence will be a lose – for you and/or for the team.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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