Conflicts range from the extreme to the mundane, from the battlefield to the boardroom. And, while conflict generally carries a negative connotation, it's also (somewhat paradoxically) the engine powering our entire civilization.
The physicist David Deutsch puts it well:
The majority of human history has constituted as a long period of complete failure to make any progress. Our species has existed for 200,000 years. For the vast majority of that time, people were alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things. But nothing ever improved. The improvements that did happen happened so slowly that geologists can’t distinguish the difference between artifacts from one era to another with a resolution of 10,000 years. So from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved, with generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis.
Then there was slow improvement, and then more-rapid improvement. Then there were several attempts to institutionalize a tradition of criticism, which I think is the key to rapid progress in the sense that we think of it: progress discernible on the timescale of a human lifetime, and also error correction so that regression is less likely. That happened several times and failed every time except once—in the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In summary, every brick in the road of our civilization was laid by the process of critiquing ideas, trying to determine which make sense and which should be discarded. In periods where idea critiquing was either censored or otherwise not part of our culture, progress stalled.
Critiquing ideas naturally involves a degree of conflict. Ideally, conflict is resolved with words, but sadly, all too often throughout human history, it has been resolved with violence. It's no wonder most of us have a natural aversion to it.
Compounding this, our language doesn't even make a distinction between the good kind of conflicts (the ones that result in science and progress) and the bad kind of conflicts (the ones that result in violence and war).
Conflict is paradoxically one of the most destructive and constructive forces we have. Clearly we should try and harness the power behind the good kind of conflict and try to avoid the bad kind of conflict, but how do we differentiate between the two?
Certainly good conflicts are fought with words rather than violence, so that's a clear distinction. But you only have to open up Twitter to see the bad kind of conflicts fought with words, so clearly we need to look for further distinctions.
Another distinction is intent. The intent behind a productive conflict is to find the truth rather than to be right. Of course, determining intent is easier said than done. But if someone is displaying a distinct lack of curiosity that's a sign that they're not interested in the good kind of conflict.
Another distinction is outcome. Do both parties come away energized? Was progress made toward finding the truth? Or was the conflict personal, culminating with a gleeful winner and a dejected loser?
Outcomes are important because they teach us what to do in the future. If conflicting ideas are resolved amicably and all parties feel like progress toward truth was made, then the teaching is to embrace good conflicts. But if conflicts are heated, personal, or involve ad-hominem attacks, then they teach us to be conflict avoidant. And thus, to make less progress.
Because the word conflict is such a catch-all in our language, both good and bad conflicts occupy much of the same thought processes and trigger the same emotional responses (freeze, fight or flight). The net result: we avoid all types of conflict, often to the detriment of making progress.
We all have different tolerances for conflict. It turns out that people with a higher tolerance for conflict tend to get further in life—particularly managers, whose performance is directly related to the number of difficult conversations they're prepared to have. That's not to say that you should love conflict for conflict's sake (those people tend to be assholes), but only that you shouldn't shy away from resolving important conflicting ideas in a search for the truth.
So how do we train ourselves to be less conflict avoidant? We can use the same technique that therapists use for treating phobias: systematic desensitization. That’s basically a fancy way of saying “exposing yourself to something over time.” In this case, we need to set up a culture where conflicts are consistently resolved productively.
A nice benefit of starting a company is you get to set the rules in your playground. And, as a manager, you too get to set the terms of engagement on your team. By getting a commitment up-front from them to follow general principles designed to encourage good conflicts, you can increase the chance that conflicts are resolved amicably and progress is made.
Rapoport's Rules, named after game theorist Anatol Rapoport, are a set of rules intended to encourage productive, critical discourse. In particular, the rules seek to avoid straw man representations of an opponent's argument and to avoid the backfire effect that criticism often provokes.
The rules are as follows:
- You should attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, "Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
The reason that following Rapoport's Rules makes for a more productive conversation is that both parties feel heard. If you can state your opponents arguments as well as they can, they feel heard and will extend you the same curtsey.
We think these rules are a great start, but would humbly submit some additions:
- Seek the truth rather than trying to be right; take the ego out of it.
- Hold ideas lightly and keep your identity small.
- Speak in absolute truths (either with facts, or with personal truths like “I felt ...”)
- Remember, context over content. If someone “doesn't want to hear it,” more words aren't going to help. Both parties need to be operating in a curious state.
In a marriage, it often helps to reframe conflicts away from “you vs. your spouse” to rather “you and your spouse vs. the problem.” We think a similar reframing is useful in the office too. Starting with what you agree with, state your shared goals and then team up to find the best possible solution.
Remember, if someone changes your mind, that's a good thing. They've done you a favor by error-correcting your model of the world.
“I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.” - Steve Jobs
Before giving someone feedback, debating through ideas, or really any kind of conversation, it's worth considering the context before the content. This means considering (and potentially addressing) everyone’s emotional state before you're deep in a conversation.
If humans were logical calculating machines, then this wouldn't be a problem. Your iPhone doesn't care if it's at 10% battery, it's still going to compute accurately. Humans, on the other hand, are barely accurate at the best of times. And when we are tired, angry, sad, or scared, our higher-level thinking completely shuts down.
Thousands of years of evolution developed our intuition, a type of reflex thinking designed to improve our survival. It also baked cognitive biases into us—a list that goes on for several pages. All this was well meaning. Biases are energy preservation hacks that were useful at some point on the savannah. But they struggle in dealing with modern life's complexity.
In our experience, the greatest bias of all is emotional state. When someone is angry, sad, or fearful, they tend to not make rational decisions or innovate. Instead they stall, attack, and avoid.
What compounds this is a rather strange sense of delusion that none of this exists. Because our sense of self is restricted to our unobjective reality, we get so wrapped up in our own world (and being right), that we assume these biases only apply to others.
So, in order to have productive conversations, first determine (and, if needed, address) the emotional state of the room.
Getting a grasp on how we're feeling at any given point in time is easier said than done. This is because, as we grow up, we're taught to hide our feelings from others. To be a good actor, you have to live the part, which involves a degree of hiding those same feelings from yourself as well.
We're not born this way, though. Toddlers, for instance, have no filter. If they're happy, they smile; if they're sad, they cry; if they're angry, they lash out. But as we grow up, society dulls these edges. And it's a good thing too—nobody wants a world run by toddlers.
However, reverse-engineering some of this programming is valuable. A key part of emotional maturity is pausing before reacting, locating yourself, understanding what you're feeling, and asking yourself if you're in a curious, open-minded state. And then, and only then, reacting.
It doesn't matter if you think feelings are useless. The fact of the matter is, you have them, and they affect your judgement. It's better to come to terms with that and incorporate them into your mental models than to live in denial.
Feelings manifest themselves in different ways in the body. Many people feel anger as a tightness in the chest. Or a flush in the face. Similarly fear often manifests as a chill across the skin. Staying attuned to these changes in your body can give you clues to your emotional state.
In others, you have to go by visual and audio cues. Humans are pretty good at that; indeed, we're often better at determining emotions in other people than in ourselves. But, when in doubt, ask.
Of course, many conflicts in a company are not about ideas, but about people. These are harder to resolve because they're caused by fundamental distrust. Often conflicts about ideas are actually masquerading as interpersonal conflicts. It's important to realize this early and address the root cause—quibbling over ideas is just a front. We address this in the next section: Issue resolution.
For further reading, we suggest this paper by Neil Katz and Kevin McNulty of the Department of Conflict Resolution Studies.