Productive Conflict in Conversations

“No truth is without some mixture of error, and no error so false but that it possesses no element of truth…Honest argument is merely a process of mutually picking the beams and motes out of each other’s eyes so both can see clearly…”
The Wright Brothers

Conflict in conversations is a natural part of working processes. Too often, we avoid it in the name in protecting a positive work environment; this is a mistake. Rather than avoiding conflict, we should harness its power of bringing key issues to the fore and helping us to examine the truth of the situations we are examining.

Why does conflict occur

Conflict can occur when context within a communication culture is low. When context is high, little needs to be said, and much can be inferred from who is communicating the message. Both those speaking and those listening and acutely aware of social norms and traditions within the organisation which means that little needs to be said explicitly. This can lead to a culture of people confirming to set standards, and an organisation stagnating in development.

Example: When discussing data in some schools, a discussion could be had about the need for “sub-group analysis”. Where the context is high, little more needs to be said; there is an innate understanding that “sub-group analysis” means looking at the prior attainment and key characteristic data of the pupils.

When the context is low the communication needs to be direct and explicit; people need to not only say what they want and what they mean, but also why they mean it. When ideas are being discussed, and new ideas are being developed, the context is often low as the boundaries that form the idea are being developed and understood.

Example: A school might be discussing the idea of teaching from the front and encouraging this with their staff. When leaders are discussing what they have seen staff implementing, they may disagree about their observations. This could be because of the low level of context around the phrase “teach from the front” and therefore more explicit communication being needed around this idea.

It may seem like a high context situation is the aim; this is not the case. If context is high at all times, are people testing the boundaries of ideas and engaging in meaningful discussions around them? High context situations can lack inclusivity, as a diversity of thought processes are not always engaged. Hierarchy and chains of command are often used as a defence, rather than being examined for their usefulness. Low context situations led to disagreement, conflict and discussion, but also innovation change and refinement.

Productive Conflict and Harmful Conflict

Conflict has the ability to unify people. When correctly framed, it brings people together to develop ideas and drive change. It can drive high-velocity, robust decision making by ensuring all cards are clearly laid out on the table.

If we want productive conflict, we must treat conflict as information. When people disagree, or get fired-up about an idea, we must try and understand their thought process and take on board the fact we might not have thought that they would feel that way. Conflict allows us to see the truth of others, what they really think and what they really feel. This will lead to better working relationships and stronger teams.

Harmful conflict marginalises people. It focuses on differences, and considers positions in an argument as binary, pitting people up against each other. While harmful conflict often happens, people rarely are so different they sit on opposing sides of a spectrum. However, this is how conflict is most often considered; two opposing parties, with completely differing objectives and differing methods. At this point in a conflict, it is no longer productive. Often those in disagreement are bringing up tangential or historic points, sometimes personal, rather than factual about the idea being discussed in.

Avoiding Harmful Conflict

To ensure we avoid harmful conflict we can:

  • Connect – ensure we listen to each other in a disagreement, and don’t dismiss other people’s point of view. Try to understand why they have the opinion they have, what their narrative is and where their opinion is formed from.
  • Build up others – when disagreements happen, often the participants engage in putting on a “face”. This can be considered a defensive mechanism, often occurring as people as feeling threatened, or that their point of view is not being understood or accepted. When this occurs, it is important to acknowledge the facts being discussed by both parties, the common ground they share, and the positives they see in each other’s argument. The role of an observer in the room may be to encourage this to happen.
  • Culture – encourage a culture of the positive and productive elements of conflict. It allows the truth of the situation to be seen, and resistances to be unpicked. To develop this culture, we could set norms of direct disagreement, encouraging candid conversations, listen to each other and acknowledge each other points, and crucially maintaining that there are no winners and losers in conflict; the aim is always the development of ideas and organisational progress.


Many of the thoughts discussed here relate to previous blogs on ideas such as:
Theories of action
Asking questions
Psychological safety

Further reading:

Ian Leslie, Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes

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