Create a Culture of Controversy with Civility

Embracing Conflict Can Be Good for Your Organization
group of coworkers sitting around conference table talking

It seems like we as a society are more divided than ever, with arguments over politics, which football team is better, or whether pineapple belongs on pizza creating conflict.

Conflict can be good – it can help to develop me as a person or an organization –  but only when we are willing to listen and have an open dialogue. Sadly, this does not seem to be the culture of our society. We are so focused on being right or winning the argument that we are not willing to entertain an idea that is contradictory to ours. 

Conflict arises when we are not living according to our values, or when our values are threatened because of the unknown or a personal lack of fulfillment. This idea of conflict revolves around me (“my values are threatened,” “my lack of fulfillment”), and fails to take into consideration the other individuals involved in the conflict. Conflict typically involves at least two people, and by focusing on mefail to take into consideration values, beliefs, and ideas of the other people involved.

When we don’t consider ideas and perspectives contrary to ours, we close ourselves off to new ideas. People’s perspectives are shaped by their upbringing. From the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are constantly being shaped by our experiences, which allow us to bring different perspectives to different situations. By not being open to another person’s point of view, we do two things:

  1. We are telling that person that their experience is of no value to me, and in turn, he or she has nothing to offer me.
  2. We are saying, “I am right, and you are wrong, and because of that, I am not going to listen to you.”

At one time or another, we likely all have chosen to not listen to someone because of our own agenda, we disagreed with them, or we wanted to prove our superiority. The issue with “winning” in conflict is that there is only one winner, and you can’t run a team or develop an organization when only one person feels valued. Inevitably the organization or team will suffer from failure, high turnover, and become dysfunctional because of the fear and mistrust that arise from a culture of conflict.

So, what can we do to have a culture that allows for effective conflict without creating an environment that is rooted in artificial harmony? The answer lies in a concept called controversy with civility. This idea is found in the Social Change Model of Leadership Development and it emphasizes the importance of creating a culture that is open to dissent.

An organization that has a culture that embraces controversy with civility is a safe and supportive environment that is based on trust, respect, and collaboration. This trusting environment allows people to share ideas and seek understanding of varying positions and differing points of view.

You may think the idea of controversy with civility is a myth, but it can happen with work, some vulnerability, and bit of trust. A lot of trust, actually, because that is where controversy with civility comes from. We must be able to TRUST that although others may not share our opinions, they will respect that it comes from a person with a valid perspective and must be taken into consideration.

The interesting aspect of this is that we cannot expect that someone will trust us. We have to be the first to start creating that culture of trust by investing our trust in others. We can demonstrate our trust in others by showing concern for those in the group, by being willing to share and accept information with others, and to value their experiences and ideas. 

Controversy with civility is not something that you can mandate, because no one can mandate trust. To accomplish it, we only need to do one thing: LISTEN. Not just hear what people are saying, but actively listen to understand without judgment and without an agenda. 

The application of controversy with civility will not necessarily make your organization a perfect place filled with sunshine and roses; conflict will always happen. It will foster an environment that embraces conflict as an opportunity to develop and grow the organization.   

The next time you begin to feel the anxiety of conflict rise and the urge to win in an argument, take a moment to stop and actively listen to what the other person is saying. Take a moment to understand the information that the other person is trusting you with, then make a decision.

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