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Strengthening Your Conflict Tolerance Ability

Strengthening Your Conflict Tolerance Ability

When you have a strong tolerance for conflict, you're able to remain effective in an environment where people are expressing strong and opposing views.

For example, you're part of a work project team, and the team has gathered for its weekly status meeting. You have an idea for handling one aspect of the project in a new (and better, in your view) way. But you know that if you express your idea, Salina –another team member – will be sure to jump all over it. You and she are like oil and water: Ever since the beginning of the project, she has energetically criticized every opinion you've expressed and shot back with different ideas entirely.

You don't relish getting embroiled in another round of verbal volleying with Salina. But at the same time, you feel certain that your idea has merit. And, when you think about it, you acknowledge to yourself that Salina sometimes has good ideas of her own – if you can look beyond her brash and aggressive exterior. So at the appropriate time during the meeting, you offer up your idea for the rest of the team to evaluate. Sure enough, Salina initially snorts at your proposal. But as she criticizes it, she also puts forth additional thoughts about how to improve on what you're suggesting. By the end of the meeting, a new plan has emerged – one that you agree is even better than the version you initially presented.

Many people feel uncomfortable with conflict. They fear that if they get embroiled in a dispute, they'll lose their temper and wreak havoc on everything around them. Or they fear that conflict, if "let out of the bottle," will damage the relationship at hand beyond repair.

But conflict is an inevitable part of your professional (and personal) life. In fact, conflict often serves a useful purpose: The clash of opposing ideas and strategies reveals the strengths and weaknesses of each and leads to high-quality solutions. The more comfortable you get with conflict, the more willing you become to contribute your good ideas as well as engage in spirited – and ultimately productive – debate with others over your own and their ideas.

How to strengthen your conflict tolerance? Consider these recommendations:

  • Read a book on the subject. Potential useful titles include Resolving Conflicts at Work: Eight Strategies for Everyone on the Job by Kenneth Cloke et al., Harvard Business Review on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, and How to Manage Conflict: Turn All Conflicts into Win-Win Outcomes by Peg Pickering.

  • Take an online learning course on conflict management. Examples include the "Managing Difficult Interactions" module in the Harvard ManageMentor series, developed by Harvard Business School Publishing, as well as the "Moving Past Conflict" and "Working with Difficult People" modules offered by Serebra Learning Group. Your company may have purchased a site license for such e-learning programs. Or, you may be able to buy a CD containing modules of interest as well as participate in them online or download them from the developer. Some developers charge a fee for participation in the courses they offer; others offer modules for free.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone who you view as having a particularly strong tolerance for conflict. Ask this person how he or she has strengthened this skill.

  • Attend a workshop or course in conflict management. Your company may offer such learning opportunities or may be willing to reimburse your tuition if you take such a course through another organization. Local university extension programs, as well as continuing education programs, may offer such workshops and courses.

  • Practice "normalizing" relationships after conflict. Every time you experience a conflict with someone else, reestablish the relationship as a positive one afterward. For instance, stop by a few hours following the dispute and chat briefly about a work-related topic ("Hey, Martin, those contracts just came in; I'll get your copy to you ASAP"). Or mention something unrelated to work ("You'll never believe this: I was running some errands at lunchtime, and ran into Joan Stark! She's working at American now, and it sounds like she loves it."). By normalizing relationships after conflicts, you teach yourself that conflicts don't necessarily result in irreparable damage to your relationships – a fear that causes many people to avoid conflict entirely.

  • Practice addressing the fact of conflicts directly. For instance, after a dispute, say something like, "Sarah, things got a little tense during the meeting this morning, and I just wanted to let you know that I do understand your viewpoint. I hope you know that I was expressing concern about certain aspects of your idea – not attacking you personally. I very much respect what you bring to the table, and I don't want disagreement over ideas to hurt our working relationship." By addressing the fact of a conflict directly – especially a particularly heated dispute – you avoid giving the impression that you're glossing over what's become a real problem.

  • Desensitize yourself. List all the situations and individuals with whom you avoid conflict, then rank order them in terms of difficulty. Starting with the least difficult situation and individual, script out what you'll say when you next confront the person over a disagreement or dispute. Refine your script until you feel it's just right. Then practice your delivery with a trusted friend – asking him or her to play your "opponent." Once you've gained a level of comfort with easier situations, do the same with the more challenging ones.

Strengthening your conflict tolerance takes practice. But the results are well worth the effort. The better you are at this ability, the more you can encourage yourself and others to present, evaluate, and refine ideas to arrive at the best solutions to your organization's most pressing problems.