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Can Conflict Be Healthy?

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

When you think of conflict, what comes to mind? Many of us are accustomed to thinking of conflict as a negative occurrence with bad outcomes. We are conditioned to think that all arguments are to be avoided. However, not all conflict is unhealthy – healthy conflict does exist. In fact, participation in a productive debate can be a healthy mental exercise. 

Let’s dive deeper into what makes a conflict healthy vs. unhealthy, but first, we’ll take a look at the more familiar form – unhealthy conflict.

Unhealthy conflict is often perpetrated by a bully, someone who exhibits combative or aggressive behavior that puts the other person on the defensive. Bullies attempt to assert power over another by talking over them, blaming, claiming superiority, or putting the other person down with negative statements. As you probably know, unhealthy conflict rarely leads to a positive resolution without a neutral third party’s intervention.

Workplace bullying is categorized by repetitive behavior over time in which one person is targeting another. Bullies aren’t necessarily managers or others who are in power. They can be coworkers, frequent customers, or others in business relationships. Victims of bullying experience targeted behavior in the form of harassment, abusive or coercive language, and/or incivility. Over time, the bullied person may experience feelings of fear, anger, resentment, or sadness, all of which affects their ability to work productively.

Unhealthy conflict in the workplace can lead to disruption of the team, resentment, negativity, and ultimately increased turnover. Workplace leaders need to learn how to recognize unhealthy conflict and address it early. They should encourage teams to debate ideas without making judgments about people because their ideas may be different. 

Now let’s explore the less familiar concept of healthy conflict in the workplace. Engaging in healthy, productive conflict gives employees the opportunity to debate ideas, practice problem solving, and learn how their colleagues express ideas and opposition. Because it is a naturally occurring part of human relationships, conflict is impossible to avoid completely in any workplace. Rather than attempting to stifle it, managers need to plan for conflict and help employees learn positive methods of conflict resolution and communication.

Healthy conflicts are based upon mutual respect and trust. Team members must be able to express thoughts without being bullied or put down for having different opinions. Instead of blaming one another, participants are able to express disagreements or problems constructively. 

Winning isn’t the goal of a healthy disagreement. The goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and to find common ground so that both people can move forward. Asking questions helps to facilitate this understanding, but it is crucial that you actually listen to the answers in order to move toward understanding.

Communicating assertively can help to move a healthy conflict along toward resolution. Different from aggressive communication, assertive statements aren’t angry or threatening. Assertive statements are more matter-of-fact and are honest rather than crossing the line into aggressive or bullying behavior. Utilizing assertive language may help make the disagreement clearer and help to solve problems before they become disruptive. 

Which type of conflict do you experience in your workplace? Understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict can set the stage for mutual understanding and cooperative problem solving. If you are experiencing unhealthy conflict at your place of employment, consider working with Alternative Resolutions on mediation strategies that can create a more productive work environment.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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