One of my all-time favorite movies is Jerry Maguire starring a young Tom Cruise as the eponymous sports agent. Down on his luck after sabotaging his high-flying job at a top-tier agency, he heads out on his own with his one remaining client – a loudmouth, pint-sized football player with a massive chip on his shoulder, and an even bigger point to prove. What appears like the thin set-up for a joke turns out to have surprisingly deep layers of meaning as Jerry grapples for the first time with some big existential questions: Who am I? What do I value? Am I a success or a failure? And what is success anyway? Pretty heady stuff for a rom-com.
One of the more memorable scenes has Jerry trying to reason with his irascible client, Rod Tidwell, inside a locker room, becoming more and more exasperated by the minute. Finally at the end of his rope, Jerry explodes on him. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me, out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about! Help me, help you,” he begs of his client. Rod’s reaction? He just laughs. “Dude, you’re hanging on by a very thin thread. And I dig that about you! See, that’s the difference between you and me. You think we’re fighting, I think we’re finally talking!”
Everyone can relate to Jerry Maguire in this moment. “Hell is other people!” Unless you live alone in a cave, we all live our lives in relation to other people – in our work, in our homes, in our communities. And no matter how good those relationships may be, occasionally there will be conflict. Sooner or later, every business / partnership / marriage will stumble or hit a major roadblock. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. The important thing is how we engage in that conflict.
Good Conflict Vs. Bad Conflict
Whether it’s agent and client, husband and wife, or co-founders – the most healthy adult relationships require some level of regular “maintenance” to keep things running smoothly. “But we never fight!” you may say. Okay, but maybe that’s not such a great thing either, if nothing ever changes or gets resolved. Is it harmony, or just conflict avoidance? Good conflict, the healthy kind, pushes us to be better. It demands that we engage with the other person, that we actively listen to them, that we are accountable for our actions, and above all, that we look for solutions to our problems. Most of us could use more of this kind of conflict, not less.
Bad conflict, the kind that raises blood pressure and ruins our sleep, is toxic and unending. In her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, author Amanda Ripley identifies several key reasons why some people get locked in conflict. Rigid (binary) thinking, ritual humiliation, contempt are, not surprisingly, some of the ways in which people and groups get stuck. She also coins an interesting phrase – “conflict entrepreneur” – to describe any person who stands to benefit in some way (socially, financially, politically) from conflict, or from sowing the seeds of division. They might be politicians, people on your Facebook or Twitter feeds, or even people we work with. I’m sure we can all think of examples.
My own observation of working with co-founders within startup companies is that the most successful ones generally do not avoid conflict. Rather, they tend to foster a culture where honest disagreement is not only acceptable, it is encouraged. How do we do this? Well, for one thing – we can speak openly and honestly with one another whenever issues arise. (Always better to do this in person or over the phone/video, not in writing.) We can actively listen, without defensiveness or shutting down. Good conflict is rooted in humility and curiosity. It says, “Tell me more about that?” It’s very hard to change another person’s thinking until you can understand how they are thinking.
Ask yourself, what is the Crock pot here?
In any disagreement between people, there is always what we think the argument is about, and what the argument is actually about. In her book, Amanda Ripley uses the analogy of a divorcing couple arguing over who gets to keep the crock pot. The actual pot is not the issue here (he can buy another one at Walmart for $30). The real issue is what that pot may represent for someone – home, comfort, family, a sense of security – and the grief they may feel over what has been lost.
We all have our crock pots – usually related to our status or value system. So you’re upset about something, but what are you really mad about? Is it feeling overlooked, undervalued, taken for granted maybe? (See Rod Tidwell) Because most people, myself included, are working off of scripts generated long ago, many of them operating well below the conscious level, which makes everyone you meet a complete and utter mystery, even to themselves. With all of our weird distortions, projections and grievances, it’s a wonder we can communicate at all! With this in mind, we should be careful not to judge too quickly or too harshly, some of the behavior in others we might deem odd, unacceptable, or downright “crazy.”
The Bottom line
People are tricky! But disagreement is not always a bad thing. The goal is not to avoid conflict altogether, it’s knowing how to handle it constructively as a springboard to meaningful change. It takes real courage to lean into conflict so that we can learn to connect, communicate and work more effectively with others. Remember:
Be Direct. If you have a problem, go directly to the source. But do it in person (not over email, slack, text, or social media). This may take some preparation. Resist the temptation to gossip, badmouth, or otherwise use back-channels to resolve an issue. Be curious by asking good questions, and actively listen for the answers.
Know the Crockpot. Yours and theirs. Ask yourself, what is this argument really about? Is it about money, status, trust, agency, fairness, respect? Very rarely is it about the thing that we think it is.
Ask For Help. If problems become intractable, or you find yourself dealing with a conflict entrepreneur, there is no shame in asking for help. Find a trusted individual (mediator, coach, therapist) who can help you navigate these more difficult conversations. You may think you’re fighting, but maybe you’re finally talking?