being comfortable with being uncomfortable

A couple posts ago I talked about how to abide with discomfort, especially in scenarios that are awkward, painful, or really personal (such as conversations about race or feminism). But while I’ve gotten used to conflict about issues that I care about, I’m still generally a conflict-averse person. I like getting along with people and I want to be liked. In my first facilitation training ever, the instructor videotaped each of us and replayed it with us one-on-one. She told me that while I have a lot of natural facilitative tendencies, I tend to “do a lot of frantic dancing” to cover up awkward silences or potential conflict. What she meant is that when I perceive conflict in a room, I try to solve it as quickly as possible so that we can all agree on things again.

I realized that this desire for harmony can get in the way of productive conflict. Productive conflict (and this idea comes from a book I just finished, 5 Dysfunctions of a Team) is ideological. Good teams are made up of people who are able to confront each other about deep philosophical differences and still trust each other. Productive conflict leads to better decisions, more commitment, improved accountability, and better results.

In my job I deal a lot with change, and I’ve recently realized that I need to embrace conflict as a critical element of long-lasting change. When people disagree, instead of trying to point out their commonalities or find a compromise, I’m now trying to be quiet and listen instead. If they air out the conflict and resolve it themselves, rather than relying on me to find the path, the resolution is more lasting and real. An example of this was a recent presentation my team did to share the status of an IT project with a bunch of people who weren’t involved in the project. Folks presented, asked if there were any questions, there were none, and then we were all happy for a few minutes because it seemed like everyone was on board. The silence struck me as a little too silent, so I tentatively asked, “Do people believe that what we’re working on is actually going to make a difference to your jobs?” That question by itself brought up a lot of conflict – dissenting opinions, questions, doubts (of course, only at the tail end of the meeting did things get interesting.) It made me uncomfortable to bring up something that could potentially derail or risk our efforts, but without airing out these doubts, there was no way that anyone was going to buy in at all. And they wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying anything if the question hadn’t been posed to them directly. The conflict ended up greatly improving our communication strategy for the project.

It made me think that instead of accidentally hitting upon conflict, we should try to anticipate conflict early. This opens up a new possibility for me as a facilitator. Instead of avoiding conflict, maybe my role is to proactively address possible conflicts, or even start a debate or argument. If I sense someone disagreeing silently, maybe I have to help them articulate themselves instead of brushing it aside for the sake of harmony. Instead of pointing out possible solutions to a conflict, maybe my role is to put some pressure on people to explore the problem and really air out all the objections before moving into the solution space. Maybe I have to get used to the butterflies in my stomach and heat rising in my neck when people start disagreeing with each other, because it’s better for the team.

Abiding with discomfort is really hard. But it’s so important that it’s worth getting used to.


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