Have you ever taken one of those leadership style or personality “tests,” like the DISC assessment, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or Predictive Index? They’re all interesting and informative, with information about how we communicate and what we prioritize, but one thing I haven’t found on any of those commercially available tools is how people perceive conflict.
Note that I did not say how people handle conflict. In my experience, before you can deal with a conflict, a critical factor is whether and how people perceive conflict in the first place. Your perception of conflict is the catalyst that triggers your personal response to the situation.
That’s why it’s crucial to understand how people experience the concept of “conflict” so differently. At that point, it becomes crystal-clear why they engage in it or run from it the way that they do. More importantly, it tells you so much about how you need to handle the situation in a way both parties feel heard, respected and satisfied with the results.
First, it’s important to understand that conflict is not a yes-or-no issue. It’s a gray scale, with “peace” and “war” at the opposite ends, separated by a wide range of degrees of intensity, which might look something like this:
Different people will have different levels of personal tolerance for these degrees of intensity, much like your personal tolerance for spicy food. What is a pleasant sensation for one person is a painful burn for another, to be avoided at all costs.
These different degrees of conversational intensity, such as discussion, debate and argument, are always present. Then, the key is to recognize at what point on the scale you start to feel a sense of genuine anxiety, and when that anxiety reaches a level that is intolerable, which makes you want (or need) to end the conversation. This is when your “fight-or-flight” instinct tends to kick in, and your reflect response will be to fight or flee.
If you are someone who tends to have a lower anxiety tolerance for conflict, your scale may look like this:
For you, a conversation is only comfortable as long as you know that you will not have to broach any subject that will make one of both of you unhappy, because unhappiness reflects conflict, and conflict triggers anxiety, which is not tolerable. If you are highly conflict-averse in this way, it explains why you may tend to shut down or avoid having some conversations even if you know they are important.
Ironically, it is often through those efforts to avoid conflict that your anxiety levels will worsen over time, as problems are allowed to fester.
On the other hand, if you have a higher tolerance for conflict-based anxiety, you might view the scale more like this:
To you, a good intellectual debate is just that: a debate. A sport, to explore the differences in ideas. Maybe it’s to try to learn from the other person, or to persuade them to change their opinion. Either way, most comments are acceptable as long as you’re only attacking each other’s ideas, but not attacking each other personally. The related level of anxiety is just part of the sport.
If you have a higher tolerance for this level of conflict-related anxiety, it’s important not to confuse being callously blunt with being clear or efficient. Needless to say, this is no better of a leadership style than avoiding important conversations, if your goal is to build loyalty, trust and effective relationships.
I strongly encourage you to share these models with your team and have an open discussion to compare where people identify their own tolerance levels. Once you understand how you perceive conflict and at what point that conflict puts you in a state of intolerable anxiety, especially relative to someone else’s tolerance, you’ll be better able to understand why your response to conflict defaults a certain way. Only then will it be possible to discover what you need to do to promote open discussion in a way that creates trust, and increases productivity and overall success.