Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Don’t Go There: on fearing conflict

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I know what you’re going to say…

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So don’t go there…

My wife and I sat at the dinner table arguing about something we’d not really argued about before. We’re sitting there going back and forth about this new thing and suddenly the feeling of familiarity strangely rolled over me. No, we had not argued about this issue before so it wasn’t the topic. I sensed that I was familiar with the direction.

To the unkeen eye, our arguments might seem sporadic and scatted, but they really have an ebb and flow to them. Yours do too. All of our arguments do. We get used to how we fight. Our “muscle memory” kicks in when we argue. We already know how it will end up…

So sometimes, we just don’t say anything.

It’s not the familiarity that kills our arguments; rather, it’s the fear. Arguments are uncomfortable. They cause tension and we decide not to bring anything up. So when we’re at work and we finally bring up that staffing issue we’ve been muttering to ourselves about for a month, people might respond with, “Wow. I had no idea that’s been bothering you.” When we finally tell our spouse we feel the relationship is stale, they might say, “Really? How long have you felt this way? Why haven’t you said anything?”

We didn’t say anything about the tension because we were afraid the argument would turn out the same way as it always does, and that hurts. 

“But so-and-so and I argue all the time. Isn’t that conflict.” Fortune 500 consultant and smarty-pants Patrick Lencioni disagrees: “No. You have tension. But there is almost no constructive conflict. Passive, sarcastic comments are not the kind of conflict [we] are talking about.” (from the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team)

You see it’s a lack of the conflict that’s a problem. Tolerance of bad behavior is where the problem lies. We should not tolerate the negativity in others, but we should especially not tolerate it within us.

So how do we fix the issue?

  1. Separate the person from the problem. You’re not mad at them. You’re not. You’re mad at the issue, perhaps that they caused. Separate the two.
  2. Bring it up. Focus on the facts and don’t call names. Just say something about it. “I don’t like A, B, or C. I want to fix this…”
  3. Change something. Anything. A small thing or two. Just change something. Bringing up an issue and choosing not to change anything within yourself is an act of selfishness. It is expecting someone else to do something you yourself won’t stand up and do, whether you know that or not. So change something.

My wife is the greatest. Sure we argue. We’ve spent our fair share of days living in the tension. But often she brings up the stuff I am often unwilling to voice. She helps us put an end to the negativity we might utter to ourselves and keep from the other. And besides, there’s no other person I can think of who can argue with me one minute and share a plate of cookies and milk the next.

I forgot to mention – cookies and milk help 100% of the time.

Good luck, friends. May you have a conflict-filled (and change-filled) week.

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