High Conflict vs. Generative Conflict

 High Conflict vs. Generative Conflict

 High Conflict vs. Generative Conflict 1000 667 Brook Thorndycraft

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word conflict? It might be a feeling, a thought, or a memory. For most of us, the first thought is likely to be something negative or threatening. 

But conflict doesn’t always have to feel as bad as it often does. Conflict can be a source of energy for change, and it can have the potential to lead to new possibilities and deeper relationships. But for this to happen, we need to build the skills and determination to avoid the lure of high conflict whenever possible. 

This is what I mean by the idea of generative conflict. It’s an approach to conflict that recognizes that we are all interconnected and dependent on each other, and that there is no way to escape the inevitable fact that we will sometimes disagree. Often vehemently. But we can learn to approach these moments in ways that lead to greater connection, trust, possibility and creativity, rather than harm and rupture. 

What is high conflict?

You know those moments when you disagree with someone about something you care about very deeply, you feel yourself get more and more upset, and the next thing you know, you are confident that the other person is actually a horrible person? And you’re pretty sure they are not only a horrible person but they are also out to get you? Everything they do or say is suspect and just adds more evidence that they are not to be trusted. That you need to do whatever you can to come out on top. This is a sign of high conflict, and it is deeply seductive. 

High conflict feels safe and powerful. It’s very familiar to our nervous systems, because it activates our tried and true survival strategies. But the irony is, the more we fall into high conflict as a way of dealing with disagreement and discomfort, the higher things escalate, and the more likely we are to end up in cycles of violence and harm. Or at the very least, unable to work together on things we care about.

We see this all around us, more and more. It’s a time of polarization and high conflict. We can see it in politics, on social media, and in many of the conflicts that feel so entrenched in our workplaces and communities. While it’s not always possible for conflict to be generative, the current tendency toward high conflict is likely outsized. High conflict is great at hooking us, even when it would be possible to go a different way. Once we slip into high conflict, it can be hard to shift out of it when it would help us to understand nuances, or when relationships are particularly important. This is why we want to be able to recognize the signs of high conflict, and find any opportunities to take a more generative approach.

How are high conflict and generative conflict different?

High conflict and generative conflict are very different mentally, physically and emotionally and relationally. Here are some examples of how.

Ideas of right and wrong: In high conflict, we tend to understand the conflict as having two separate sides where ours is right and the other person’s is wrong. In generative conflict, we try to stay open to the possibility that the topic under dispute involves a complex mix of different perspectives. There may even be a grain of truth in the other person’s experience.

Feelings: In high conflict, we tend to feel things like contempt, disgust and self-righteousness about the other person or side. There might also be high anxiety or feelings of threat. We might also feel shame, humiliation, confusion and defensiveness due to the kinds of actions that are taken against us. In generative conflict, we might feel very angry, hurt and untrusting. But even if some of the harder feelings like shame come up, we may also be able to bring a tiny bit of curiosity that helps us stay connected to ourselves and open to understanding other perspectives. 

Sense of movement or change: High conflict often feels stuck and unmovable. People get entrenched and stuck in cycles. In generative conflict we can notice moments that feel like a mobilization of energy that might lead us to an unknown future.  

Narrowing of identity: In high conflict, we solidify the identity of “the other” as bad, unworthy, stupid, overly emotional or overly rational, or oppressive, and the identity of ourselves as good, righteous, harmed or victimized. In generative conflict, we have the space and enough knowledge about the other person to be able to remind ourselves that both of us are more complex humans than this particular moment makes us seem.  

Use of power: In high conflict we enter into power struggle with a “winner-takes-all” stance, whereas in generative conflict we try to stay open to the possibility that we might be able to use power strategically to get to a better place for everyone.

Conflict strategies: In high conflict we tend to prioritize “separating” strategies such as blame, condemnation, stonewalling, or manipulation, while in generative conflict, we try to notice the moments of “meeting” strategies where people listen, reach out to each other, or ask a curious question. Even if these meeting strategies are rare, we acknowledge them when they happen. 

Outcome: High conflict tends to lead us to exhaustion, breakdown, retraumatization and ongoing cycles of escalation, while generative conflict carries with it the potential for healing, positive change, creative possibilities, and better relationships.

It isn’t always possible to be generative. Even when it is, we might move back and forth on a spectrum between high conflict and generative conflict. But the more we can aim to remember the principles and practices of generative conflict and create the necessary conditions for it to happen, the more time we can spend on the generative end of the spectrum. 

The key difference is relationship

I have a list of principles of generative conflict that I share with cohort participants in my course, Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces. The first principle is “The relationship is more important than being right” (credit to Lewis Deep Democracy for this one). Every session, people react strongly to this principle, usually from a greater familiarity with high conflict, and very interesting conversations ensue!

So what does this principle mean? It means that for conflict to be generative, the people involved need to have some recognition that they are “in this together.” That may be because there is actually an important and caring relationship to protect. But it may equally be that they are trying to achieve something that is important to everyone, and they don’t want that goal to fail. Or maybe they just want to be able to keep getting paid by the same organization and need to figure out how to work together. This principle is about setting an intention. That even if we really just despise each other at this moment, we will do what we can to stay in relationship rather than prioritizing “separating” strategies that escalate to high conflict. 

It doesn’t mean that we have to like each other, agree, cross our own boundaries, accept abusive or discriminatory behaviour, or go along with something that we find morally unacceptable (more on this below). It’s an agreement that at this moment, we are willing to see what might happen if we try to remember we are interdependent. 

The diagram below explains the conditions and actions of generative conflict, and the relationship between high conflict and generative conflict: what happens when the necessary conditions and practices for generative conflict are not present, and how can people return to generative conflict when possible? Below the diagram I break this down further.

Diagram of the relationship between high conflict and generative conflict. On the right side, there is a blue circle with three breaks in it, with an orange circle inside of it. There are orange arrows going in and out of the breaks in the blue circle. The blue circle has the title, "Generative Conflict." The three parts of the blue circle say, "Trauma-informed leadership," "Understanding and working with power," and "Equitable and safe enough culture." The orange circle is labeled "Core Practices" and is broken into four quadrants. They are called, "Build emotional agility," "Courageous communication," Strengthen relationships," and "Zoom in and out to know context." The orange arrows circle in and out to two purple boxes in the top left. The closest to the blue circle is called, "Interventions" and lists things like mediation, grievances, and restoration. The furthest box is called, "high conflict" and lists things like polarization, public condemnation, separation and violence. The arrow going from Interventions to Generative Conflict is called resolution or repair. The diagram is showing that people can go in and out of generative conflict. There is also a purple square on the bottom of the diagram called "New people and onboarding." There is an orange arrow going from the square into the Geneartive Conflict circle.
The conditions and actions of generative conflict, and the relationship between high conflict and generative conflict: what happens when the necessary conditions and practices for generative conflict are not present, and how can people return to generative conflict when possible?

What are the conditions that facilitate generative conflict?

Creating the conditions happens primarily on the level of the organization, its leadership, and its culture. A workplace can foster a culture that supports people to feel “safe enough” to take the kinds of interpersonal risks that are necessary for generative conflict. Here are some examples

Trauma-informed leadership

Our nervous systems often experience conflict as a survival threat, and our fight/flight/freeze/fawn reactions get activated in response. A trauma-informed response recognizes this reality and normalizes it. It offers support for people to find their way out of the reactions in moments when they are taking us in a direction we don’t want to go. In the long run, trauma-informed leadership can create the necessary supports for people to be able to build their capacity to be with the discomfort of conflict. A trauma-informed approach also ensures that people have choices, and know what the options are in cases where it is not going to be safe enough to stay in the relationship. 

Equitable and safe-enough culture

The definition of team psychological safety is when people feel like their team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Staying connected in conflict is one of the biggest interpersonal risks we ever have to take. This means that the more safety people generally feel on their team, the more likely they are to be able to take a generative approach. It is absolutely essential to take an equity approach to psychological safety. The worst and most entrenched conflicts often arise from the ways we reproduce social inequities on our teams. To create conditions for a generative approach to conflict, we need to ask questions about what kinds of barriers to trust and safety might exist for equity deserving members of the team. 

Understanding and working with power

Conflict is stressful, overwhelming, and feels like a threat. When we feel threatened we tend to take actions that help us feel more powerful, in order to feel safer. But one of the top factors that leads to conflict escalating into high conflict is the misuse of power. This means to be able to support generative conflict, we need to build our awareness of how power plays out in our organization and how it affects our relationships. 

Core practices of generative conflict

When the conditions are in place for there to be enough safety, there are four practices that help us build capacity for generative conflict. I generally suggest that these practices should start with leadership. The more you as a leader set the tone for conflict to be generative, the more your team will feel able to follow your lead. 

Build emotional agility

Get to know your personal reactive patterns in a conflict. What happens for you when you feel angry, defensive, or hurt in a conflict situation? When are those reactions helpful, and when are they not? All reactions to conflict can be helpful in certain situations. But sometimes we rely too frequently on our habits when they are not really serving us or the situation. You can build your capacity to notice your reactions and expand the range of choices you have available for how you respond in the moment. This is emotional agility. 

Learn courageous communication

Build your capacity to give clear and effective feedback. Set boundaries with respect and care. Listen to really understand what the other person is saying, and use your curiosity to clarify what you are hearing. These communication skills are the basis of conflict resolution. They are also a wonderful tool for preventing the kinds of conflict that come from miscommunication. 

Zoom in and out to understand the full context

Conflict is usually happening at many levels at the same time. We can look at it through the lens of the individual experience, the interpersonal dynamics, the group or team dynamics, the organizational role, and systemic and cultural issues. However, because conflict can be very confusing, we tend to look at it through the lens that we feel most comfortable with. One of the most important skills for generative conflict is to be able to zoom in and out like a camera to really understand what is happening at all of these levels of the conflict. This practice is about building our curiosity and our ability to analyze what is really happening to be able to intervene as effectively as possible. 

Strengthen relationships

With stronger and more trust-based relationships, it is more likely that we will be able to remember that we are interdependent when we have conflict. We can start by building trust and understanding when we are not having conflict. But we can also do so in moments when we are. This does not mean we have to like each other. It means that we have enough trust to remember that we rely on each other in some way, and that we value that interdependence.

We do this in the moment in a conflict by paying special attention to the times when the heat of the conflict cools even for a moment. Someone might ask a curious question, or acknowledge someone else’s perspective. We might be reminded of a shared value or memory, or there might even be a spontaneous moment of laughter in the midst of anger. In high conflict, we tend to pass right over those moments, either not noticing them or discounting their importance. In generative conflict, we try to slow down, notice them, and recognize that they are windows into the wider relationship beyond the current bad feelings.

But what if it’s not possible to be generative?

Moving toward generative conflict as a way of being is a long journey. It’s about creating conditions that make it more likely that conflict will lead to new possibilities. For conflict to be generative, the conditions need to be “safe enough” for people to be able to take some interpersonal risks. And then everyone involved has to be willing and able to do so. 

And even when people are committed to generative conflict, it’s never possible one hundred percent of the time. There will still be crises and complaints. There will still be moments when there is not enough trust, safety, or shared purpose to be “in it together.” In these moments, we might need to separate and try higher conflict strategies to get out of situations that feel impossible to resolve. Sometimes – for example in cases of toxic bullying – these strategies might be the only way to go. But the boundary between high conflict and generative conflict is porous. Often, people try a range of different higher conflict strategies, and eventually realize that the only path to a better outcome is together. It is harder once we have stepped out of generative conflict to return to it. But with intervention and repair, it is often possible. 

At the root, it’s about shaping change

Conflict, no matter what kind, is a catalyst for change. What we fear is that it will lead us down a path of breakdown, separation, entrenchment, and cycles of harm. And this is often true.

But this is not always what happens. In the height of conflict, there can be possibility. We can learn and grow from the ways we are different, and break through the assumptions and mindsets that keep us stuck in a way of thinking. Conflict can lead us to creative solutions and new ideas that we never would have reached if we buried our differences or tried to solve something on our own. Through repair, conflict can even create stronger relationships based on deeper understanding, respect, and commitment. Conflict is an unavoidable – even essential – ingredient in collaboration. 

We can create the conditions and build the capacity to shape the change toward greater possibility and away from stuckness. That is generative conflict.

To learn more about bringing a generative approach to conflict to your workplace, check out our cohort course for leaders: Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces. Or if you are more of a solo learner, check out the asynchronous version, Self-Paced Generative Conflict.