Conflict Resolution: Why Fighting Makes Things Better

We tend to assume that arguments are bad. We’re wrong.

The best ideas often come from arguing. Here are two examples:

How fighting against a highway created a network of parks and bike trails.
Back in the 1970s my mother led the fight against Route 66 in Arlington, Virginia. She and her fellow “Stop 66” team were resolute. The highway would slice through the middle of their community destroying the nature and limiting people’s bike access to the other side of town.

The people on the highway side were equally adamant: Traffic was a nightmare; if they didn’t extend the highway, it would be utter gridlock.

After years of fighting, the highway eventually went in.

But my mom’s team didn’t really lose. Because of their efforts, the highway project included parks and bike trails that connected the community in ways that the previous road system did not.

The process of fighting made the whole project much better. If my mom’s team hadn’t been so adamant about their position, there wouldn’t be any parks and bike trails.

If the highway people hadn’t fought for their agenda, traffic in the DC area would be backed up to West Virginia. The process wasn’t pretty, but the fighting produced a better result.

How arguing over ice cream sundaes improved student recognition

It was a contentious meeting, in the way that upper middle class elementary school PTA meetings can be. The topic: How to reward kids who make the honor roll.

The traditionalists wanted to continue with the custom of rewarding the kids with an ice cream sundae party every grading period.

The other parents who quickly became known as the Sugar Nazis, were adamant that the PTA stop using sweets as their go-to reward. They suggested giving out special pencils instead.

To which the ice cream loving parents said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

The debate was veering towards an angry stalemate when the PTA President, a colleague of mine, said, “Let’s put the pencils and sundaes on pause. We all agree that our goal is to make the kids feel special. Let’s brainstorm all the ways we could do that. They wound up with creative rewards that included movie passes and a climbing wall experience.

Again, the argument was the catalyst for new solutions.

The problem is, because we tend to believe that conflict is bad, we avoid it, instead of managing it.

Here’s the simple four step process I use with executive teams and that I taught my PTA President colleague.

1. Get both opinions on the table – Don’t mince words. The longer you dance around it, the longer it takes.
2. Search for the WHY – Ask why the bike trails or ice cream sundaes are so important. When people say, I want our community to be close or I want kids to feel special, write it down. This bigger goal becomes your new starting point.
3. Surface the hidden fears – Ask, what will happen if you don’t get the pencils or highway? Their fear of a fat kid or hours in traffic is the real emotional hot button. Make it clear that you don’t want that either.
4. Redirect the energy – Put the current solutions on pause and ask for ideas to accomplish the big goal of special-ness or community. Better answers will start to emerge.

Fighting isn’t a bad thing. If you don’t have argument, you won’t solve anything. Conflict, it’s a catalyst for creativity.

(c) Lisa Earle McLeod

 Lisa Earle McLeod helps organizations win the hearts and minds of customers and employees.  She is the author of three books included the best-seller, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, A Washington Post Top 5 Book for Leaders.

 She is an international keynote speaker and consultant who has been seen on The Today show and featured in Forbes, Fortune, CEO Read and The Wall Street Journal.  You can reach her at where you can read hundreds of free articles.


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