Unleash the Creativity Within Conflict!

combat on horsebackAs I began to teach about conflict, I saw a bunch of hesitant faces with those “do we really have to deal with conflict?” expressions.

Most folks I know don’t like to deliberately face conflict. Sure, they can handle objective, professional conflict – with some detachment and calm.  But stir deep emotion into the mix and they’re running for cover. 

But without conflict, we can’t harness the fruits of collaboration and creativity. 

Think a firm full of “yes” men and women!

We need conflict for creativity because conflict is about dealing with differences – and we’ll never get to the best solutions, and real innovation, if all we encourage is sameness.

We  want to encourage some tension in our teams between competing values.

In a hospital system, that tension may be called the conflict between money and mission. In other firms, it may show up as a fight between marketing and finance.  When we get down from our emotional high horses and stop fighting, it becomes clearer that we need to honor many diverse values in order to succeed.  to see that. Chances are we need to maintain all those values –

Often a conflict in values shows up as a personality dispute. When a team calls me in with a conflict, they are usually experiencing some ugly symptoms such as communication breakdowns and differences in styles.

What’s harder to see is how underneath the personality conflict are built-in differences in values that may never go away.  These are often polarities.

Manage the tensions that will never go away

Polarities are  tensions between interlocking values that will never go away – conflicts that are embedded in a system – because you can’t have one pole without the other pole.  Think yin and yang, day and night – we can’t have one side without the other.

I watched as an agency that always applauded individual achievement revised its focus and started promoting teamwork (while forgetting that individual achievement still mattered!)  Sure enough, after a few years, the technical specialists started feeling like their work wasn’t adequately respected – and started wanting to leave – because all the rewards were going to teams.

The solution is simple – yet sometimes difficult to achieve:  Think “both-and”: asking how do we honor both?

Some polarities we all know include the tension between balancing home and work.  If we ignore either side, we’ll feel the consequences.  Or trying separating our concern with our own self interest vs. our concern for others. Emphasize one without the other and you’re in for trouble.

Think both/and:  team and individual

Going back to our team/individual example, as we’re thinking about rewards, processes, and how we use training dollars, we can add one simple question:
Team working together

“How can we maximize team performance while encouraging individual excellence?”

Voila: our thinking is enhanced when we think both/and!

(And fyi –  polarities are everywhere!)

Our stories need conflict

As a storyteller, I listen for conflict. Think how b-o-r-i-n-g it would be to read “Young entrepreneur has a dream.  Successfully raises money. Builds team. Company succeeds – now she is rich.” (Alas, this kind of simplified story keeps being told!).

Instead, I want to hear about what really happened behind the scenes – the bumps along the way, the mistakes, the failures or almost-failures – everything that gives a story texture. Great stories always include some conflict. I want to root for a heroine who learns how to work her way through conflicts on her journey.  She’s my gal – not the one for whom everything mysteriously works out!

Healthy conflict is needed in any group. How about you? What do you do to manage conflict creatively – for yourself and with others?



How to Stop But-ting

512px-Goats_butting_headsIn improv, you learn what happens in a story or conversation when two partners block each other. The conversation slows, stops or becomes very boring. The most common way to block a point in a conversation is to use the word “but.”

That’s why improv teaches us to say “Yes, AND” not “Yes, But.”

There are many ways “but” can get expressed without saying the word. In fact, you can even use the word “and” to mean “but” as in “You raise an interesting point – and that’s why I think my idea is better.” Or “Yes, and of course that won’t work” (it’s too idealistic, expensive, etc.)  Other phrases to watch out for are words like “however” and “although” and phrases like “of course, that wouldn’t be feasible” or even the sneaky one, “Interesting, why don’t you research that (to death)?”

And “yes, but” isn’t always a conversation stopper.  A lot depends on your intent. You could say, “I’d love to go hiking with you tomorrow, but I hear it’s going to rain.  Shall we shoot for Sunday?” and your words would advance your plans – and lead to a good time.

In their book, Conversation Transformation (I highly recommend), authors Benjamin, Yeager and Simon offer the following exercise to help when you are beginning to argue opinions with your partner, tension is building, and you’re about to jump in and argue.

Start building rather than but-ting

When you want to encourage listening around a contentious issue, respond to your partner’s argument by first building on it. When you build, you offer true statements that acknowledge points in an opposing argument that you can agree with.

For example, you believe that taxes are needed and justified to make sure that the government can provide essential social services and rebuild our decaying transportation infrastructure. Your partner starts the conversation with:

“The trouble with America is that government has gotten too big. They are wasting our money and taxing the middle class to death. The only way out of this is to cut taxes and force the government to cut spending.”

You gulp and get ready to spring into your argument.

But first you think build…three times

You look for points in your partner’s argument with which you can agree.  And you offer three of them.  (Three can be hard – it requires you to stretch!)

  1. “I know that there have been examples of government waste and excess.”
  2. “Many middle class Americans are feeling pinched and I understand that the effective standard of living has gone down for much of the middle class,”
    and finally
  3. “It’s important to prioritize where to spend government dollars to make our money counts.”


Now the next part. Instead of jumping in with your best arguments, you offer a question about the issues that underlie both of your arguments.

“How can we curb excess federal government spending and make sure our dollars will be used well while also insuring that we have the essential government services that will keep our country strong?” 

The process of building three times and then asking a question is a skill that is easier said than done, especially when our desire to be right is so strong.  But it can keep us away from needless conflicts in relationships and promote a spirit of inquiry and discovery.

Remember to have fun!

In the class I taught on conflict last week, we supplemented these ideas with some fun improv exercises.  I used my version of the exercise “Presents” to promote a spirit of “Yes, And.”  One person gave an imaginary present, the second person named it and the third person made a comment about it.  We also had a fun time playing a “but” game where one person voices an opinion to a partner and the partner responds with a “but statement.”

As we debriefed the exercise, we observed that there are many ways to convey the spirit of “but” without using that word.

But then, I got in trouble.  (Note to readers – avoid this if you can!)

I was addressing all the ways people can say “but” without using that word and I added,

“I have a nose for “buts.”  I can smell them a mile away. “


There was silence.  Then lots of laughter.  Oh dear.  Now they have another, Sally-ism that I am sure to hear about at their graduation. At least they won’t forget the point!

How do you keep from “but-ting” in your challenging conversations?



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