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Do You Dread Conflict? It Doesn't Need to be that Way

Communication Studies Professor Jennifer Guthrie provides strategies on how to resolve problems in the workplace.

People  |  Sep 18, 2018  |  By Afsha Bawany
woman presenting at podium

Being curious, not defensive, is a key part of positive conflict resultion, according to Jennifer Guthrie. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

Conflict can be bad for your health. It can strain your endocrine, immune, and cardiovascular systems. For many people, conflict is, at best, an unpleasant necessity. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Conflict can be an avenue for open communication and problem solving.

“The quality of our conflict affects personal and professional relationships. Positive conflict is associated with innovative, effective decisions,” said Jennifer Guthrie, associate professor of communication studies. “Overall, people tend to view conflict positively when they feel heard and understood even when they disagree.”

Guthrie presented a conflict resolution workshop at the MGM Resorts International Women’s Leadership Conference Aug. 27 and 28. At the start, she broke the ice by asking people what they thought of when they heard the word “conflict.”

“Struggle.”

“Uncomfortable”

Then someone said, “Growth.”

“Ohhh, let’s get back to that one,” Guthrie said.


Why were you surprised when someone in the audience replied “growth”?

I’ve done that activity numerous times in the community or classroom, and most people shout out negative words. Every once in a while, I’ll hear positive words. When I hear the word ‘growth’ or ‘opportunity,’ it’s rare. We only tend to think of conflict in terms of its negative aspects. And conflict can be tremendously positive in terms of expressing your needs for personal growth or relational growth.

Why should we learn positive conflict resolution skills?

We tend to think people are mind readers, but we also incorrectly guess people’s motives or intentions. If I am annoyed, I may stew about it, but the other person doesn’t know I’m annoyed. When we engage in the conflict, we are allowing everyone to see someone else’s view and learn about each other more and communicate better.

What are some tips to start unpacking the issues?

Be curious. Explore and ask, what is the problem? Be profoundly open to the other. Speak in ways that make others want to listen and listen in ways that make others want to speak. Test ideas — not people. Another step is for both parties to take responsibility for their roles in the conflict. Realize both parties can indeed be right/wrong.

What counts as healthy and unhealthy conflict? 

It’s so hard to define this. To me, whenever someone feel threatened or a person can’t say or do what they want or can’t express needs or have them heard in a way, its not a bad idea to seek a third party. Especially in the workplace, if someone abusing you, or using abusive language, it’s not you to move to curiosity to figure out what is the problem – there’s a line. You can hold your own own opinion while being open to others. However, the tips are not asking you tolerate intolerance or abusive behavior.

Any tips to avoid when trying to resolve a conflict?

Defensiveness. Are you listening simply to defend? Know it’s okay to be wrong; move to curiosity. Instead of responding to a constructive complaint with another complaint or a defensive statement, have the mindset of “That’s interesting. Tell me more.” Are you stonewalling? If you are, then take a break and return. If you’re angry, self-soothe and speak up calmly.

Does technology escalate conflict?

Generally, people may just think all conflict on technology is negative. There is some research out there that suggests for people who have an avoidance personality, technology gives them time to think out their responses. For some folks, it’s easier to misinterpret email with a crankier tone than intended.

What should you do to avoid a tech conflict?

Read back the text or email you’re about to send in the angriest tone possible. Does it sound like how you generally sound in person?  Soften up the tone up a bit. But this also depends on who you are working with. Do you work with someone generally via email, or do you work with them in person? It’s wise to be cognizant of your tone.