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  • Kyle Brooksher

How to Train for Healthy Conflict

We’ve all been there: The boring training where you're expected to come in, sit down, listen to the trainer, fill out a worksheet or take a quiz, and then leave with "full control and mastery" of the presented material. Maybe you've sat through one thinking to yourself, “I’m not sure I agree with that point,” or “What he just said doesn’t seem right to me.” But you just let it go, provide the desired answers and get on with your day.

Now ask yourself, what did you actually learn from that experience? What part of that training do you remember now? How reflective was it of the overall working environment of the company that gave you the training?

In a previous post, we examined the role of building trust through training using Patrick Lencioni’s best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, to emphasize the importance of trust within a healthy team. The second dysfunction Lencioni identifies is discomfort and avoidance of conflict. In an organization without healthy conflict, individuals are unable or unwilling to have their voices heard, to engage in conversation about key organizational issues, or to state any opposing views they may hold. So, employees are typically less engaged and learn more slowly, and the organization becomes stagnant.

How can you establish, build or maintain healthy conflict in your organization? Consider including the following four methods in your training programs:

First, search for hidden areas of conflict and disagreement. Lencioni explains that a good manager must “mine” for conflict within their organization. Most areas of conflict and disagreement are hiding beneath the surface of day-to-day workplace interactions, and the holders of the conflict are afraid to express their concerns.

If you are a manager or trainer, consider using an upcoming session to ask employees for their input on what issues need to be addressed within their team or workgroup. Find ways to let people talk with you one-on-one about what conflicts they see that may need to be brought to light. Ask if there are issues or philosophies that they don’t totally agree with. Then, when you start to gain an understanding of what needs to be addressed, resist the urge to lecture about it from the front of the training room. Instead, make these key issues the center of your training interactions…which leads to our next point.

Second, make sure your training is interactive. You can’t have healthy conflict if only one or two people are speaking. We know that the true causes and outcomes of conflict are too nuanced to be distilled into a black-and-white or binary way of thinking. And trying to force differing viewpoints into one of two boxes greatly diminishes the sense of involvement of everyone who has an opinion about the given conflict. Instead, build your training around interactive elements that get your employees thinking and articulating their viewpoints about the conflict. Consider using role-playing or debate scenarios that help people think and talk through differing ideas in a safe and fun space. Encourage your participants to think in ways that may be uncomfortable.

Third, reassure your participants that healthy conflict is good. Sometimes in a class or meeting when conflict is engaged, even in a healthy way, people can get uncomfortable. But if people get uncomfortable, it might mean you're doing something right as a trainer or leader. When you observe discomfort, gently reminding the group that getting this sort of conflict out in the open will help everyone understand the nuances of the shared vision or principle with more clarity. This will go a long way toward breaking the tension and enabling people to feel comfortable voicing their thoughts or concerns. This kind of tension will also help root the given subject more firmly in people’s memories.

Fourth, be sure the conflict is really healthy. Conflict, even healthy conflict, can turn unhealthy and poisonous quickly if not managed properly. Be sure to keep the conversation about ideas, issues and principles, and keep it away from personal attacks, criticism and political posturing. If you have already identified the underlying sources of tension and conflict, keep these issues at the front of your mind, and be quick to redirect wandering streams of thought back to the given issue at hand. This will help your participants know that the training session is not about calling anybody on the carpet but to help unify the understanding of the team.

Incorporating healthy conflict into training can be an incredibly difficult thing to start doing, but like any difficult task, it gets easier with practice. And by using training to work through conflict as a team, you will go a long way in positively impacting the overall health of your organization. Plus, your training sessions will become a lot more interesting!

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