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  • Jay Kaufman

On Conflict and Leadership

There is no person, couple, family, or group that doesn’t experience conflict. What’s your reaction to conflict? For most of us, it’s somewhere between discomfort and avoidance. To compound matters, if you’re in an authority position, there is almost certainly an expectation that it is your job to step in and resolve conflicts. This is very challenging territory, and developing the skills and capacity to deal with conflicts is as difficult as it is important.

So what is the work of leadership in the face of conflict?

A proposition:

Leadership entails moving yourself and your people from an aversion to an appreciation of conflict. A conflict is an invitation to new learning, to what is commonly referred to as an ADGO, another damned growth opportunity.

A corollary proposition:

The work of leadership includes keeping the focus on conflict, mobilizing those involved in it, and keeping the engagement in the productive zone of disequilibrium, neither avoiding conflict nor allowing it to generate intolerable disruption.

Many of the leadership skills we introduce and practice in our workshops encourage and empower a healthy relationship to conflict.

· Understanding your triggers – what’s your reaction to conflict and what’s your default behavior and role when it occurs?

· Faction mapping – who and what constituencies are involved, and what are the loyalties, values and potential losses of each? What’s their attachment to the status quo and what would it take to move them off it?

· Role – what’s your role in the system and what tools are at your disposal?

· Give the work back – A conflict you resolve does little to empower or change the system. Those with the problem must solve the problem.

· Hold steady – Manage yourself so you don’t lost your capacity for quiet observation, thoughtful interpretation, and experimental interventions.

· Manage the heat – Keep the conversation in the productive zone of disequilibrium.

· Maintain curiosity – lead with questions and encourage listening and discerning in place of knee-jerk reactions and defensiveness.

None of this is easy, and all of it requires both thoughtful understanding and practice over time. The key is to get and stay on the path to greater capacity, greater tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, and a greater appreciation of and fervor for seizing the opportunity implicit in conflict.

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