I received a great question over Twitter this morning. The person asked, is there another side to the risk of conflict debt (the price we pay for avoiding conflicts that we need to work through)? Is there also a risk of conflict fatigue? First, there’s nothing I like more than starting my day with a message from someone half-way around the world who’s passionate about team effectiveness. Second, what a cool question! So, here’s my answer for Suva, and for you.

Conflict Debt

We can talk about the different sources of conflict fatigue and some strategies to lessen the burden. First, let’s start with why you can’t just avoid conflict altogether.

Conflict is a necessity in organizational life. Merriam-Webster defines conflict as the “mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.” By 10am, you’ve probably stumbled across a handful of conflicts: which email to ignore and which to respond to immediately, how to tell your colleague that her presentation doesn’t hit the mark, when to decline a meeting invite to a useless meeting.

As the stakes associated with the conflicts you face get higher, the risk of leaving them unresolved grows. Failing to prioritize means nothing gets done well but you still get burned out trying. Turning a blind eye to a colleague’s disrespectful behavior sews the seeds of mistrust and poisons your work environment. Tolerating what seem to be endless joe jobs when your role was supposed to be more strategic slowly crushes your soul…well, at least it puts a damper on your engagement. Getting into conflict debt is bad for you.

Conflict Fatigue

Ok, so if avoiding conflict is a bad strategy, what’s the risk on the other side? Is there such a thing as conflict fatigue, and if so, what’s to be done about it?

I think there is such a thing as conflict fatigue. That’s less from my psychologist expertise and more from my lived experience.

Conflict fatigue results from a combination of three things.

  1. The stress of anticipating an unpleasant conversation
  2. The exertion of engaging in the conversation
  3. The second-guessing of the conversation and the relationship afterward

The good news is that there are ways to minimize the fatigue from each of these.

Reducing Conflict Fatigue

Don’t Play the Mind Games

The best way to reduce the fatigue that builds up before you even have the conversation is to minimize the time you spend anticipating, agonizing, and assuming in advance. When you imagine a variety of scenarios that might play out, it’s easy to catastrophize the problem, vilify the other party, and freak yourself out. It’s not necessary. Spend a few minutes thinking about what you need to say. Take care to choose the words and examples that allow you to broach the issue objectively. Then get to it. (By the way, that means not making excuses like, “It will have to wait until I see him again.” People have phones. Usually within 1 inch of their person at all times.)

Build Your Conflict Muscles

When it comes to reducing the exertion of the conversation itself, it’s all about being skillful with your approach. If you go splashing judgments around and harboring self-indulgent woe-is-me interpretations, you can expect to get something not so pleasant in return. Instead, take care to talk objectively about what happened before you share the impact it had on you. Validate the other person’s perspectives before you share your own. Make room for more than one truth in the conversation. I’ve added some links below if you need to refresh on these skills. If you approach conflict the right way, you’ll feel the mild strain of exertion from being so deliberate with your words, but at least there won’t be any bruising from taking body blows.

Be Quick to Take Ownership and Move On

After the fact, second-guessing every word in an argument and overplaying your colleague’s dastardly intent is going to peter you out. Give it up. Once a conflict has come to the surface and been discussed, be kind and generous about how you interpret it. Start with the mantra that conflict is normal in organizations and remind yourself that others have different perspectives and different obligations that will sometimes cause them to disagree with you. If something is really not sitting well with you, return to step one…don’t let it linger, go back and address it.

A More Systemic Solution

As someone who battles with an equal fear of conflict debt on the one hand and conflict itself on the other, I’ve spent the past few years trying to find ways to get through conflict with much less fatigue. My answer is to make conflict in organizations more systematic; to build processes that make conflict feel less like fighting and more like problem solving.

Neutralize Conflict Before it Starts

You probably have many conflicts that could have been avoided completely if expectations had been clear at the start. You can head off conflict by doing a better job of getting aligned on expectations before diving in. These questions work wonders. If you’re the one on the receiving end of someone else’s expectations, be sure you ask them. If you’re the one setting the expectations, be sure you answer them.

  • What needs to be done?
  • Why is this important?
  • How will it be used?
  • What is included and not included?
  • Who would you like me to involve?
  • What would good look like?
  • What are some of the problems you want to avoid?
  • When should I share my thinking?
  • What do I do if I have a problem?
Normalize Conflict

The final thing I would encourage you to do to minimize conflict fatigue is to talk about the kind of tensions that are supposed to emerge around your table. By framing tension as something positive and normal and by creating a shared language for the disagreements you will inevitably have, you can make those disagreements much less stressful. Here’s a link to the instructions for that exercise.

Suva’s question is such a great one: is there a risk of conflict fatigue? Yes, I believe there is, but thankfully, you have many opportunities to reduce the toll that planning for, engaging in, and reflecting on conflict takes on you.

Further Reading

How to Prevent Conflict on Your Team (easy step by step video)

An Exercise to Help Your Team Feel More Comfortable with Conflict (Harvard Business Review)

The First Steps to Create a Productive Conflict Habit

How to take the sting out of conflict (using magic from Harry Potter)

The Right Words: The Two Truths

The Good Fight