Conflict is everywhere. On social media and late night television we see never-ending arguments about politics, religion, or generational gaps. What if these disagreements were productive?
Conflict is necessary for creativity and development; however, it has to be constructive. America was founded on combining old ways of thinking and producing something new. The idea isn’t to compromise, but to take the different perspectives and create hybrids. Constructive conflict could even resolve the seemingly elusive healthcare issue that has divided our nation.
There are two stages to harness constructive conflict successfully: rules and conversation.
Stage 1 is to establish the basic rules for differing parties to communicate. Expectations for the discussion must engender respect and esprit de corps. It is imperative that all parties are willing to work together towards a common purpose:
- Use respectful language (no shouting or personal attacks)
- Ensure information is readily available to all parties and verifiably accurate
- Answer questions honestly
- Develop a new solution
- Respect basic human rights
- Test and evaluate solutions by putting it into practice
Constructive conflict can be an engine for genius
Look closely and you will find constructive conflict where creative genius flourishes. For example, Saieh Hall, the University of Chicago has been the birthplace of a wide array of economic theories that have greatly influenced how the free world of meaningful commerce functions.
The Department of Economics has been home to 28 Nobel Laureates and has created an educational dynasty over the past century. Famously competitive and contentious, every speech, research finding and published paper is an opportunity for disputation. But that’s what moves the field forward. Imaginative new theories are created and debated. Monetary policies, options, derivatives, and several other aspects of modern finance, for better or worse, are the inventions or improvements of the “Chicago Boys.” Thankfully, these days their ranks include women as well, because talent is prized above all.
Stage two to harness constructive conflict is an open conversation. The key is to treat the other parties as respected colleagues. Avoid debate since it leaves people in a reactive and judgmental position that will not be useful. Everyone needs to participate and develop new ideas; not compromise. Each participant should answer the following questions in turn:
- What results do you want to achieve?
- What result do you want to avoid?
After listening to everyone’s answers, each participant should do the following:
- Suggest a potential solution in detail
- Evaluate the upside and downside of their potential solutions
Focus on potential improvement points to each solution. Everyone should have their solutions critiqued by both themselves and the other participants. Cluster the similar positive and negative solutions. Looking for common themes and hot spots to work towards a hybrid solution. The purpose is for ideas to mix together. Think of it like having a baby. Create something that is “ours,” not just “yours” or “mine.”
Collaborate to create a shared vision that encompasses the desired results everyone wishes to achieve and how to achieve them. Run experiments and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Adjust and repeat as appropriate. Diversity of thought is an essential characteristic of innovation, whether in pairs or communities, because it produces novel combinations and connections.
Constructive conflict has changed history
The world is moved by the creative power of constructive conflict. Consider how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony not only had different strengths, but also very different ideas about how to achieve voting rights for women. Anthony was a committed leader and brilliant strategist, but frequently alienated potential supporters with her uncompromising approach. Stanton was a polished speaker, writer, and a natural community builder. With seemingly oppositional skill sets, the two women started the National Women’s Suffrage Association, which eventually led to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, giving women the vote. Their shared goals and ability to creatively channel their conflicting approaches constructively, made it possible for them to change history.
Look for people who are different, not the same
The people we befriend, listen to, or enlist in our latest venture usually, reinforce our beliefs. Innovation is a form of useful novelty. It’s the opposite of “normal”. For new ideas, you must first encounter and engage with people who are “different.” Of course, not all conflict can be made constructive, but with each attempt to create new and imaginative hybrid solutions, we can move forward together.
Featured photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP via apimagesblog.com