Conflict Strategies for Nice People

12/27/2013 by Liane Davey HBR

Do you value friendly relations with your colleagues? Are you proud of being a nice person who would never pick a fight?  Unfortunately, you might be just as responsible for group dysfunction as your more combative team members. That’s because it’s a problem when you shy away from open, healthy conflict about the issues. If you think you’re “taking one for the team” by not rocking the boat, you’re deluding yourself.

Teams need conflict to function effectively.  Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought-out.  Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.

Still, I meet people every day who admit that they aren’t comfortable with conflict.  They worry that disagreeing might hurt someone’s feelings or disrupt harmonious team dynamics. They fret that their perspective isn’t as valid as someone else’s, so they hold back.

Sure, pulling your punches might help you maintain your self-image as a nice person, but you do so at the cost of getting your alternative perspective on the table; at the cost of challenging faulty assumptions; and at the cost of highlighting hidden risks.  That’s a high cost to pay for nice.

To overcome these problems, we need a new definition of nice. In this version of nice, you surface your differences of opinion, you discuss the uncomfortable issues, and you put things on the table where they can help your team move forward.

The secret of having healthy conflict and maintaining your self-image as a nice person is all in the mindset and the delivery.

To start shifting your mindset, think about your value to the team not in how often you agree, but in how often you add unique value.  If all you’re doing is agreeing with your teammates, you’re redundant.  So start by telling yourself “it’s my obligation to bring a different perspective than what others are bringing.” Grade yourself on how much value you bring on a topic.

Here are a few tips on improving your delivery:

1. Use “and,” not “but.” When you need to disagree with someone, express your contrary opinion as an “and.” It’s not necessary for someone else to be wrong for you to be right.  When you are surprised to hear something a teammate has said, don’t try to trump it, just add your reality. “You think we need to leave room in the budget for a customer event and I’m concerned that we need that money for employee training. What are our options?”   This will engage your teammates in problem solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative.

2. Use hypotheticals. When someone disagrees with you, don’t take them head on—being contradicted doesn’t feel very good.  Instead, a useful tactic is to ask about hypothetical situations and to get them imagining. (Imagining is the opposite of defending, so it gets the brain out of a rut.) If you are meeting resistance to your ideas, try asking your teammates to imagine a different scenario. “I hear your concern about getting the right sales people to pull off this campaign. If we could get the right people…what could the campaign look like?

3. Ask about the impact. Directing open-ended questions at your teammate is also useful.  If you are concerned about a proposed course of action, ask your teammates to think through the impact of implementing their plan. “Ok, we’re contemplating launching this product to only our U.S. customers. How is that going to land with our two big customers in Latin America?”  This approach feels much less aggressive than saying “Our Latin American customers will be angry.”  Anytime you can demonstrate that you’re open to ideas and curious about the right approach, it will open up the discussion (and you’ll preserve your reputation as a nice person).

4. Discuss the underlying issue. Many conflicts on a team spiral out of control because the parties involved aren’t on the same page.  If you disagree with a proposed course of action, instead of complaining about the solution, start by trying to understand what’s behind the suggestion. If you understand the reasoning, you might be able to find another way to accomplish the same goal. “I’m surprised you suggested we release the sales figures to the whole team. What is your goal in doing that?” Often conflict arises when one person tries to solve a problem without giving sufficient thought to the options or the impact of those actions.  If you agree that the problem they are trying to solve is important, you will have common ground from which to start sleuthing toward answers.

5. Ask for help. Another tactic for “nice conflict” is to be mildly self-deprecating and to own the misunderstanding.  If something is really surprising to you (e.g., you can’t believe anyone would propose anything so crazy), say so.  “I’m missing something here. Tell me how this will address our sales gap for Q1.” If the person’s idea really doesn’t hold water, a series of genuine, open questions that come from a position of helping you understand will likely provide other teammates with the chance to help steer the plan in a different direction.

Conflict — presenting a different point of view even when it is uncomfortable — is critical to team effectiveness. Diversity of thinking on a team is the source of innovation and growth. It is also the path to identifying and mitigating risks. If you find yourself shying away from conflict, use one of these techniques to make it a little easier.

The alternative is withholding your concerns, taking them up outside of the team, and slowly eroding trust and credibility.  That’s not nice at all.