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Healthy v. Unhealthy Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


Many of us are used to the idea that all conflict is bad and has negative results. In the United States, we’ve been conditioned to think that all arguments, regardless of topic, tone, or setting, are to be avoided. However, not all conflict is unhealthy. There is such a thing as healthy conflict, and engaging in productive disagreement or debate can be a healthy mental exercise.

What causes problems and leads to further conflict is bullying or intimidating behavior; refusal to listen or see another’s point of view; and ignoring hurt feelings, among other things. These tend to lead to unhealthy conflict, in which one party feels injured. If this is part of unhealthy conflict, what then makes a healthy conflict? Let’s explore the notion a little further.

Healthy Conflict

By engaging in healthy, productive conflict in the workplace, employees have an opportunity to debate ideas, practice problem solving, and learn how their colleagues express ideas and opposition. Conflict is impossible to avoid completely in any workplace. It is a naturally occurring part of human relationships. Instead of attempting to stifle it, managers need to anticipate that conflict will occur and help employees learn positive methods of conflict resolution and communication.

A healthy conflict is one which is based on mutual respect and trust. The participants must be able to express thoughts without being bullied or put down for having a difference in opinion. Blame and finger-pointing are avoided; instead, the participants are able to express disagreements or problems in a constructive manner.

In a healthy disagreement, the goal shouldn’t be to win or to have the other person change their mind and agree with you. The goal should be understanding the other person’s perspective or viewpoint to find common ground and mutual understanding so that both can move forward. One strategy to help facilitate this is to ask questions; however, it’s crucial that you actually listen to the answers in order to move toward understanding.

Assertive communication may help to move a healthy conflict along toward resolution. In contrast to aggressive communication, assertive statements are non-threatening and lack anger. This type of communication is more matter-of-fact. As long as the communication remains on the side of being honest without being brutal, then it doesn’t cross the line into aggressive or bullying behavior. Utilizing assertive language may help make the disagreement or problem clearer to the listener and help get to the root of the problem.

A radio advertisement I heard recently models good assertive communication. It goes as follows: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, family owned, operative and argued over for 40 years.

Unhealthy Conflict

Forbes contributor David Roth writes, “Healthy conflict is impossible with a bully.” Combative or aggressive behavior tends to put the other person on the defensive, which may lead to defensive behavior and an unproductive conversation in which neither person feels like there’s been a resolution.

In unhealthy conflict, one person or group may attempt to assert power over another by talking over them, blaming, claiming superiority, or putting the other person down with negative statements. Unhealthy conflict rarely leads to a positive resolution without a neutral third party’s intervention.

Bullying in the workplace is a particular type of unhealthy conflict, typically categorized by repetitive behavior over time in which one person is targeting another. The bully doesn’t have to be a manager or other person in power; it could be a coworker, frequent customer, or other business relationship. What matters when it comes to bullying is the victim experiences targeted behavior in the form of harassment, abusive or coercive language, and/or incivility. When this kind of conflict occurs to too long, the person on the receiving end may experience feelings of fear, anger, resentment, or sadness, all of which affects their ability to work well.

The dynamics of workplace bullying as conflict are exceedingly complex. Over time, if the dynamic is allowed to carry on, it can become difficult to discern between the bully and the bullied. “Upwards bullying” – in which an individual who is allocated more institutional authority is constantly harassed for having it or using it within the appropriate parameters of his or her position – can result in the person dubbed a “bully” being the person who is truly being bullied.

Unhealthy conflict in the workplace can lead to disruption of the team, resentment, negativity, and ultimately increased turnover. Leaders in the workplace need to learn how to recognize unhealthy conflict and arrest it early. Teams should be encouraged to debate ideas without making judgments about people because their ideas may be different. Learning to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict, and how to utilize healthy conflict to enhance the strength of a team, can lead to a more harmonious workplace.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via emailLinkedInTwitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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