Mindsets for Navigating Conflict and Challenging Projects
Working together with other people on hard things is challenging (and also rewarding!).
Conflict is a natural part of solving complex problems. How we approach conflict, stressful situations, and different points of view makes a huge difference. And when navigated properly, healthy disagreements in business can lead to better decisions, solutions, and learning.
After nearly 25 years of working on user-centered design initiatives with changemakers from leading organizations, I can certainly say we have run into our fair share of conflict and challenging projects.
Here are 4 mindsets that I have found helpful:
1. Make sure everyone is “sitting on the same side of the table.”
If you come to collaborations assuming good intent, you’re off to a great start.
Communicating that everyone is working toward the same goal sends a powerful message. Avoid language that sets up an “us versus them” or “me versus you” dynamic. Don’t picture opponents facing off across a table like an arm-wrestling match—you want to convey an approach where you’re sitting next to each other facing a whiteboard where you can lay out the many aspects of the conflict and solve THAT together. The subtle language should communicate “we” or “us” against this challenging project or issue.
Your ability to frame or reframe situations this way not only increases your chances of success it can actually create powerful bonds for the people working together. Harvard Business Review has an article that highlights the importance of helping “our teams realize that stress is a group challenge, not an individual burden.” Through this lens, we can often find meaning, motivation, and a way forward.
2. Encourage a fuller understanding with more vantage points.
A key strategy for encouraging contributions to a group challenge is to seek and value input from many sources. People want to be heard.
We all have a strong desire for our viewpoints to be acknowledged and factored in. More importantly, the group needs to hear from many vantage points to make the best decisions.
The parable of the blind men describing an elephant famously makes the point that we cannot rely on a single point of reference. Each man’s individual description of the animal is true but incomplete. The one holding the tail describes an animal vastly different than the others who have their hands on the elephant’s side or its ear. This is true for organizations as well. What may seem to be conflicting descriptions of what IS can actually be very helpful vantage points that we need to hear. Seeking out different perspectives brings us more awareness and encourages good judgment.
3. Use active listening and communicate back slowly and intentionally.
Receiving conflicting points of view, critical questions, or other feedback is hard. You might feel uncomfortable, nervous, or angry. The person delivering the message to you may be very direct. They may seem agitated or frustrated. You may have a strong desire to shoot back a response or shut down the dialogue.
The way to ground the conversation is to start with your own energy and demeanor—not theirs. Pause. Reflect back what you have heard, clearly. If you speak a bit more slowly, softly, and intentionally, the other party will feel that. If you are able to stay centered, they will sense that. My friend, Kevin Bush from Teams and Leaders, shared a wonderful quote with me that really resonates:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl
The idea of my power existing in that space between stimulus and response is so helpful for my mindset. Keeping yourself calm amidst the chaos is a crucial part of the journey back to alignment.
4. Look at people holistically—not just who they are in the heat of the moment.
Working well with other people is much more likely when you put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Have you considered their communication style, or their cultural context?
What’s going on in their life or their department that may be contributing to their behavior and feelings toward the current situation?
Are they afraid of a certain outcome?
- Do they have a strong ego, and is this situation threatening to them?
- Are they worried about someone else in the company seeing them as less of a leader/decision-maker/manager/etc.?
- Are they representing the wants and needs of someone else above them?
Often, there are underlying reasons for conflicts in business—and as soon as you can pinpoint them, the whole situation makes more sense. And so looking at the person more holistically, putting yourself in their shoes for a moment, and finding the root cause allows you to better understand what you need to solve for. You may need to adjust your approach, your preparation, even the way you present and talk about information to be more successful.
Try to put these four mindsets into practice in your collaborations with others. I hope you find them useful and rewarding.