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Why The Beauty of Conflict



CrisMarie: Welcome to The Beauty of Conflict, a podcast about how to deal with conflict at work, at home, and everywhere else in your life. I'm CrisMarie.

Susan: And I'm Susan. We run a company called Thrive!, and we specialize in conflict resolution, communication, and building strong, thriving teams and relationships. Conflict shows up in our lives in so many ways. Most people, unfortunately, are not very good at handling conflict. Most people have never been taught the right tools for dealing with conflict, and then it leads to unnecessary friction, arguments, passive aggressive emails, tears, hurtful comments, stuckness, all kinds of things we don't want. We're on a mission to change all of that.

CrisMarie: We spent the last 20 years teaching our clients how to handle conflict in a whole new way. We're here to show you that conflict doesn't have to be scary and overwhelming. With the right tools, you can turn a moment of conflict into a moment of reinvention. Conflict can pave the way into a beautiful new system at work, a new way of leading your team, a new way of parenting, a new chapter of your marriage where you feel more connected than ever before. Conflict can lead to beautiful things.

So today we're going to talk about why the beauty of conflict. I imagine some people might think that's like a really weird title, putting beauty and conflict together.

Susan: And we thought this would be a great way to introduce you to our podcast, The Beauty of Conflict, because we know some of you probably are wondering, why would you do this?

CrisMarie: And we've spent the last 20 years working with leaders and teams dealing with conflict in the last decade, working with couples dealing with conflict.

Susan: Working with us dealing with conflict.

CrisMarie: It's true, we always have conflicts, just even today.

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: So, and one study revealed that unresolved conflict is the largest reducible cost in organizations, but it goes unrecognized.

Susan: And yeah, there's a lot of ... You can measure it. It's just tricky to measure. But if you think about it, we've worked with organizations that have redesigned their workforce because of the conflict between two people.

CrisMarie: Or their workflow.

Susan: Their workflow. And that's a tremendous cost. Actually, they brought us in a couple times to redesign it until we finally got them to realize this isn't a design problem, a workflow problem. This is a conflict between a couple teams and a couple leaders.


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CrisMarie: For a specific example, it was one of our first clients. We were at a large telecommunication company, and it was a group of vice presidents, and they were getting ready to roll out their towers across the nation. This is a long time ago. And they had had two other consultants in before us and they said, "You know, I don't know if you can help us but please come in if you can help us redesign this workflow." And we said, "Okay." But typically when we do a two day offsite with an organization, if we're doing that work, we'll say we want to work some time on the healthy side and then we'll get to the business process or the strategy," because we do that, and when we started to do the offsite ... Do you want to take it, Susan? Because this is-

Susan: Well, it was one of my, I guess you could say, shining moments, or I don't know what you would call it. But what happened was we went in and we often talk right from the jump about how important it is to show up and be real, be willing to be vulnerable, say what you really want to say, and we generally ask the leader to make that statement to the team. I want you to be honest about how you feel about being here. And in this particular scenario, it just so happened that one of the people at the table decided to be very vulnerable and honest and-

CrisMarie: Blunt.

Susan: ... blunt, and basically looked across at someone else on the team and said, "Well, first, let me tell you, this is a waste of time. I don't like him and we don't get along, and nothing's going to change that," was sort of the gist. And there was this silence. Now, for me, I was like, "All right, that's great. It's out on the table." Like, you know, and I wanted to look at ... I looked at the other guy and I said, "So how is that for you?" He said, "Ditto."

So we were off to a good start, and we decided ... You know, I actually thought we were off to a good start. I mean we laugh, but you know, we really did think, "Okay, this is important," so we said, "We're going to just kind of go off road, off our design for a minute. We want to talk about like how long has this problem been brewing?" And then the next question, it had been probably-

CrisMarie: Nine months.

Susan: ... eight, nine months. Yeah. And that ends up ... Well, the other thing I asked was, "How many of you sitting around this table knew about this conflict and knew?"

CrisMarie: Everybody's hands.

Susan: Everybody's hands went up. So I mean, the first thing that we addressed was that this isn't just a problem between these two people. The fact that everyone else is raising their hand and has known about it for eight or nine months and it hasn't been addressed, that's actually a very costly ... That's a problem. And so when we dialed it back and started looking at what had happened, there had been a situation where there'd been a previous project and one team had been delayed in their delivery, which had forced another team to be late on their end, which had resulted in that group not getting the same level of bonus, and none of this had really gotten addressed, and there was a real lack of mutual respect between the two teams, as well as between the two leaders. They really hadn't talked about it, and frankly, they didn't know how. I mean, that's the thing: most of us do not deal well with conflict. And so the way they were dealing with it was to redesign their entire workflow around these two leaders and their teams.

CrisMarie: Because they had tried to roll it out twice and it had failed-

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: ... basically because of the disagreement between these two organizations, yeah.

Susan: Yeah, and even the leader, to his credit, was like, "I told them to work this out." Take it offline, if you've ever heard that line or use that line, and that the problem is it generally doesn't get resolved. And so we started talking about it, and the first thing we said was this is not just a problem between these two people. This is actually a problem on this team, and this team needs to deal with it first. And it doesn't mean ... You can't undo what happened, but if you don't talk about it and acknowledge the pain point and maybe apologize or have a conversation between the two of you first to start to rebuild that trust from an interpersonal level, you're not going to rebuild it further down the line.

CrisMarie: I think we only took like 25 minutes to kind of lance the boil, it sounds horrible, but to get it out on the table, and we didn't actually resolve it, but it actually, the air went out of the balloon of the tension between them.

Susan: And they agreed that they actually needed to do something similar with their own team, and the biggest thing was they said, "Look, we want to move forward. So at least for the next day and a half, we're going to give this a go and see where we land at the end of it." Well, what was interesting, we did a lot of other things during that day and a half, and by the end of the two day offsite, they had realized that, one, they felt much better with each other and aligned and in agreement and ready to go forward, and the interesting thing was they went back to the very original design, the rollout that wasn't avoiding the two teams, and they did a little bit of work with the two teams the same way we had with the leaders. They each agreed to do that with their teams. The rollout went smoothly.

CrisMarie: Yeah.

Susan: We actually got an email from the leader who said, just to give you some figures on this, this was probably about a 3/4 of a million dollar cost [inaudible 00:07:46] avoiding this conflict.

CrisMarie: That's with consultant fees, the time with these VPs in these rooms, nine months of failure and-

Susan: And redesign.

CrisMarie: Yeah.

Susan: So you know, that's just something to think about, about the cost.

CrisMarie: And this also happens in couples because we were both sides. Gottman talks about the hidden value of conflict, and so often couples think, "You know, if we have less conflict that means we're going to be happier and have a longer relationship." But Gottman finds just the opposite. Right, Susan?

Susan: Well, what he talks about is really ... First, we agree that conflict is a natural part of any relationship, and really, it's the couples that have learned to value that conflict in those differences and find ways to effectively resolve it together, like not avoiding it but actually getting into it and-

CrisMarie: Being willing to fight.

Susan: Yup, and know that they're going to have that happen, those are the most successful and sustainable relationships.

CrisMarie: And you know, I think it's counterintuitive because most of us weren't trained in conflict. We didn't grow up with good role models, and we actively, including me, work to avoid or manage it. I mean, my background was the colonel, and you just didn't argue with the colonel, so it was stressful when conflict came up. So you just acquiesced to the one opinion. And I know about ... Tell me about your background, Susan.

Susan: You know, the big thing for me around conflict was there were a lot of things that were happening that no one talked about, no one talked about, and so I kind of sometimes would say things or express what was sort of my anger and frustration about what was going on, but usually I was considered to have had a really good imagination or I had anger issues or whatever else, and often, it was because I was talking about something that wasn't supposed to be talked about.

CrisMarie: So most, and just think about you, what you learned about conflict growing up, the person listening to this, because most of us did not have good role models, and so it makes sense that when we get to be big people, we have no skills in dealing with conflict at work or at home in these primary relationships that are so important to us. But the one thing about, we believe conflict is a source of tremendous creativity and innovation, and I've experienced it over and over again, and it's even true in brain science. When your brain is holding two different ideas that seem diametrically opposed, if you can hold and not choose one or the other, that's when your brain actually new neural pathways light up and you create that ah-ha, that new idea.

The same thing happens externally when you and I, Susan, you have an idea and I have an idea. Now, if we get caught in the right/wrong, which is so typical, and I am prone to do it like, "No, you're wrong, I'm right," then we don't get anywhere. But if I can actually get interested in you and not let go of my own idea, think it's just as valid, something new emerges, and this happens over and over and over again in our relationship. It happens in the teams that we work with. It happens with the couples we work with.

Susan: Yes. I mean, it's so vital to recognize that we're not going to discover a new way to do things, unless we can really expand and include different perspectives, different points of view, different ways of thinking, and that actually takes an incredible amount of tolerance for tension, for ambiguity, for the unknown, but it also means I'm going to throw my opinion into the mix even if it might get rejected or not be considered. But I have to be willing to risk that, and when we do risk that, and whether it's between you and I or whether it's a team that really steps in, even with the naysayer on a team, can sometimes have the most perfect answer to a problem that a company has been

trying to solve for a long time and you don't expect it. And sometimes they get turned on for saying it.

CrisMarie: The executive team we worked with in China, we work with a big telecommunication company, and we had ... This was the second day of our two day offsite, so we'd done some healthy stuff. We were working on their strategy, and this one woman on the executive team spoke up with a different opinion. She was the naysayer on the team, and a big heated discussion ensued and the rest of the team got so passionate that they literally stood up and they backed her physically into a corner. I couldn't believe it.

Susan: It really was kind of amazing to see it happen. It was like, "Wow, okay. This is ..."

CrisMarie: So we said, "Wait, time out," after a moment, because you remember that stuff we taught you, the healthy stuff? So what happened is people kind of started to think, and they didn't move away from the corner. She actually sat down in the windowsill, and this gentleman said, "Okay, I want to try. I want to try to consider that this point of view is not a crazy point of view." And he said, so first he did, he actually reflected back.

He came and sat next to her. That was one thing, not against her, and sat down and said, "Okay, I want to understand. What problem are you trying to solve, and tell me what your ideas," and she said it, and you could see his wheels turning. He was like, "Well, why is this so important to you?" She started to describe what was underneath her reasoning, and that's when the light bulbs went off in his head, and you can see other people recognizing it, and she dramatically impacted ... They actually incorporated her idea into the strategy, and it totally changed the direction that they came up with in that quarterly offsite.

Susan: Yeah. And too often things like that get interrupted, or that person just gives in because it's like, why bother to keep fighting this? Or something happens, and that idea gets lost instead of-

CrisMarie: Incorporated.

Susan: Incorporated. And we see that all the time in couples. I mean, I don't know how many times we've been in our Couples Alive program and our Couples MOJO program and people are there, it's kind of like the last straw. They really are thinking this is it. And sometimes sitting with them, and they're talking about it like no one's going to understand this, and usually we're like, "Okay, we've heard this before. This is nothing new."

CrisMarie: Yes.

Susan: And yet, it's very rich and poignant to them, so it is important to give them that space, but when they can finally talk about it, and a lot of times the biggest thing is to say, "This isn't about resolving it. This is not about resolving."

CrisMarie: Rushing to an answer.

Susan: "Hold this space." Rushing to an answer. And especially in a couple, if you're talking about something that's vitally important to you and I think it's going to impact my life, which is usually the way it is in a couple, then I can feel threatened, and it's very hard to hold a space to let me just hear all that you've thought about, why you want this, why it's important to you, why you care about it.

CrisMarie: I know. When you, Susan, are talking about something that is going to impact my life, I go to all the different scenarios. Oh, this means I've got to do that, and that means we've got to do this, and it is incredibly threatening to hold the space for that.

Susan: Right. So we really encourage, whether ... Really, this is true on teams, it's true in couples, but encourage that space of like don't agree on anything at this point. Just listen, be there to absorb. Why is this so important? Tell me everything about it, let me see what it looks like, and the more couples can hold that tension, the more likely they are something's going to pop out of it.

CrisMarie: Yeah. A solution that isn't an either/or solution, it's actually something new that emerges. We've seen it hundreds and hundreds of times, both in business, and I mean the biggest thing for me that has been a learning curve, even when we were first in a relationship and we got into a fight six months in, I was like, "Oh, my God, we're over. This is just not ... I cannot tolerate this," because I didn't have the capacity to have my opinion and hold space for yours. I just thought we needed to rush to a solution because it felt so uncomfortable being in that ambiguity, that uncertainty.

Susan: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that is such a tough place to be, and we all do something. Usually we're either terrified that we're going to be abandoned or we're going to be inundated, you know?

CrisMarie: Yeah. Like, I have to do something different. That's the inundation.

Susan: Yes, I'm going to have to do something. That's the inundation. Or, she's going to leave me if I don't agree to do this, and those two things are really, that's our responsibility. Like if I begin to feel that like I'm going to be abandoned or I'm going to be inundated, for me, and you know, CrisMarie, when I start to feel that, I need to take a breath and take care of myself, and either, one, I could acknowledge it, or two, I could say, "Hey, I need a time out. I'm going to go do something to sort of reconsolidate-"

CrisMarie: Consolidate. Yeah.

Susan: "... and take care of myself." Or I may just say, "Look, for five minutes, I need to know that this isn't ... Whatever happens around this issue, we're not going to dissolve our company, our relationship, whatever it is right now," and then I can kind of, okay, let me regroup and hold, and too often that underlying fear of either the inundation or abandonment doesn't get addressed, but all sorts of action and activity is happening in the kind of fight, flight or freeze category that is separating us from each other, be it a couple, be it a team, be it an organization.

CrisMarie: Yeah, I would ... At a team level, inundation and abandonment, I can so clearly see it with a couple, but it does happen on a team like, oh, my gosh, if this happens, I'm not going to look good or I'm going to get blamed or-

Susan: Well, I was thinking of recently when we were dealing with an executive team that was making some pretty significant decisions about whether they were going to do a merger and acquisition or not, and in the room you could see like one person who always has strong opinions about everything said nothing for like a good four hours. It was like we kept trying to say, "You're never quiet. There might be something going on," and someone else, who normally is a fairly level, solid person, just sort of blew a gasket with one of the team members-

CrisMarie: It's true. Yeah.

Susan: ... and we kept tying to kind of dial it back and say, "Wait a minute, what's actually going on here?" And so to the credit of the leader of that group, he did the same thing. He said, "The reason we're here isn't to make a decision, but it's to talk about what's really going on." But it was so hard for anyone around that table to talk about it, because what they were deciding had huge impacts on them personally-

CrisMarie: Personally. Yeah.

Susan: ... much less their concern about what impact it was going to have on the rest of the organization.

CrisMarie: And I think it was hard for these executives to actually acknowledge their fear, and so it came out in these weird ways like shutting down or blowing up, and they made it sound like it was about-

Susan: The business.

CrisMarie: ... the business decision, and it's like, really, no. It's about, I don't know if I'm going to have a job or I'm going to stay with this organization or you're going to move me with that organization.

Susan: Yeah. There were a lot of things going on, and I mean, eventually stuff started to come out, but it was very difficult. And so, I mean, that's a poignant example, but it comes out all the time. You know, I've been on boards before and had my own ... Like I realized, I'm sounding all good about what I'm talking about, but the thing I'm not saying is I have lost, I am feeling threatened, I'm concerned that we're going to make a decision that's totally against everything I believe in, but I'm not talking about that fear. Instead, it's coming out in my good-

CrisMarie: Sounding smart.

Susan: ... [crosstalk 00:19:46] smart, leader person, and yeah, I don't know how many times I've had to catch myself, and if I'm willing, say, "You know, right now I feel quite vulnerable because I've been fighting for something, and the only reason I've been fighting for it is because I'm, underneath here, I'm just scared." When I do step up, it makes all the difference in the world, but it's not easy to do.

CrisMarie: The idea of conflict, I think about my own transformation, and I can't say that I'm like super amazing at conflict. It's still a challenge for me, and for me, I recognize ... This is CrisMarie ... I recognize the value in it and how much I don't think we could have been together for 20 years if I had not learned how to deal with conflict and to hang in and to see that we can get such different results. I've always been shocked. Like really? I can actually get what I want and you can get what you want? It amazes me because I've just lived such a win-lose scenario in my previous relationships.

Susan: Yeah.

CrisMarie: That's just been my context. I just thought that's how it had to be.

Susan: Right. And I don't know. I mean, it's kind of an interesting thing because it's not really win-lose, lose-win, or win-win. It's actually, because sometimes I've had a little bit of struggle with let's just get to a win-win. But I do think you can always get to a wow, like this is totally different than I ever thought we'd get to.

CrisMarie: And you can't see her hands, but they're getting bigger. Like, it takes the situation and it expands it. It is that expand and include.

Susan: Yes, expand and include. So, yeah, and that's ... I mean, I think that's a huge thing. Like, I agree with you. I don't think ... There are so many times when I would have thought, "I don't know how this is going to go, or how this is ..." I've thought that in something we've been deciding in our own personal lives. I've also seen it where we'd been working with a team and I've thought, "Oh, this is-"

CrisMarie: Yeah, I don't know how they're going to get through this.

Susan: And yet, every time that I've sat back and thought, "Wait a minute, this isn't about getting to a right answer. This is about trying to ride the wave of what's happening and see if something else emerges." And when I can hold that, I am always amazed at what happens, and conflict is that sweet sauce.

CrisMarie: Secret sauce.

Susan: Secret sauce, yes.

CrisMarie: It is, and it's true. You get smart people who are passionate and they're focused on a goal. You do this at work and you think, "Hey, we're going to change the world." But that's not what happens because these smart people, you've got them together because they've got different opinions, and that's a good thing. But they're passionate, so there's strong emotions, and then you get into that right/wrong, and that's when you hit conflict. That tension and ambiguity is so uncomfortable, and that's really what we've spent the last 20 years working with people on how to learn, and I've done my own work on how to tolerate that, expanding my capacity to tolerate that, expanding my capacity to settle myself, my nervous system in the midst of conflict, and helping other people do the same through coaching or the consulting we do.

And so this podcast is really about what we've learned, and we're going to be interviewing people that we've worked with. We're going to be talking about concepts that we find are crucial in transforming conflict into creativity, innovation, that expanded set that new solutions emerge.

Susan: Yes. And you know, we've already done some interviewing to set things up, and that's been really fun to do. We've interviewed some of our business clients, we've interviewed some couples, we've interviewed each other, and we've also picked some topics to talk about, and it's so ... Even in that, we have differences.

CrisMarie: Oh, my.

Susan: Like there are a couple that I think are great, and she's like, "Way too conceptual. The idea ..." CrisMarie is telling me they're too conceptual, and there are a couple that she really likes and I'm like, "Oh, nope, too ... That was way too detailed," or something.

CrisMarie: Or when she interviewed me, she kept interrupting me all the time. These are all some highlights of what you'll see coming up.

Susan: You know, she calls it interruption. I call it having a dialog, and ... No. But anyway, we hope you will enjoy this, and we are looking forward to having conversations possibly even with you if you're interested, or with each other and with other people who really do believe that doing conflict different can be a beautiful thing, doesn't have to be painful, and when it is painful, there's something on the other side that's worth it.

CrisMarie: Yeah, we want to encourage you to ... We hope that what you hear here on this podcast will help you embrace speaking up and holding space for somebody else to have a different opinion and seeing what's possible.

Susan: Yes. So we look forward to hearing from you and letting us know if there are particular topics you'd like to have us discuss or beyond the show.

CrisMarie: So thanks for listening to The Beauty of Conflict.

Susan: Well, thank you for listening to The Beauty of Conflict podcast. If you're dealing with a difficult situation in your life or work, remember, every conflict is a chance for you to be vulnerable and curious and find creative solutions that you hadn't considered before and make your situation even better. Beautiful breakthroughs can be born out of conflict. We've seen this happen thousands of times over the last 20 years, and we know this is possible for everyone, including you. We're grateful you listen to this show, and we're rooting for you.

CrisMarie: And if you enjoyed this show, please tell a few friends and/or post a five star review on iTunes. Your review helps new listeners discover this show. More people listening to this show means less friction and arguing and suffering out in the world, so that's a great thing for everyone. Also, visit our website, thriveinc.com to read our articles, join our newsletter, buy our books, and learn more about the services that we offer. Thanks again for listening. We hope you have a peaceful, productive, and beautiful day.

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.

Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn.

Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It!

Pre-order their new book The Beauty of Conflict for Couples: Igniting Passion, Intimacy, and Connection in Your Relationship.


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