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Curiosity and Self-Awareness are Must-Haves for Handling Conflict

MMS Founder
MMS Ben Linders

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

When you’re in a team, collaborating with others, it’s crucial to embrace diverse opinions and dissent to get to the best solutions; according to Marion Løken you need to have good conflicts. Conflicts have bad reputations, but with curiosity you can harvest more positive outcomes and build trust and psychological safety. Self-awareness of your emotions and reactions can help prevent saying or doing something that you might regret later.

Marion Løken spoke about handling conflicts in teams at NDC Oslo 2023.

Good conflicts foster trust and shield both individuals and the entire team. Løken gave four telltale signs to spot good conflicts:

  • They focus on topics rather than targeting people
  • They prioritise the success of the team over individual interests
  • They get addressed promptly
  • They are solution-oriented

Building trust is crucial, Løken said; it’s always better to have a foundation of trust when entering a conflict. Investing time and effort in building trust with your team members is never wasted, she mentioned.

To deal with conflicts, Løken suggested treating curiosity as a superpower. Curiosity shifts the conflict from a focus on being right to finding common ground, and fosters positive emotions:

It’s important to exercise “being curious” like a muscle. Make it a habit by practising it frequently, starting with low-stakes situations, and gradually increasing the complexity.

You can facilitate conflicts better by ensuring a fair process, Løken said. Such a process should include creating an environment where all voices are heard, and decisions are made collectively:

If you establish a fair process right from the start and stay focused on the desired outcome, things are unlikely to go wrong.

Løken mentioned that she has learned that conflicts can actually test and nurture psychological safety. It’s like a litmus test for gauging how safe the environment is. When you dare to share an unconventional thought with your colleagues, their reactions become the telltale signs, Løken said. It either confirms that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks and build trust, or it reveals the opposite, she concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Marion Løken about handling conflicts in teams.

InfoQ: What’s your view on conflicts in teams?

Marion Løken: I think of conflicts as a health metric! If there’s too little conflict, you might be facing a “groupthink” scenario that stifles innovation. On the other hand, too much conflict may indicate the need to clarify roles, goals, and expectations to ensure productivity. So, finding the right balance is key to a successful and harmonious team dynamic!

InfoQ: Any tips for finding that balance?

Løken: I’m not sure about finding the perfect balance, but here’s a helpful indicator to consider. Pay attention to the number and nature of topics discussed in a team retrospective. In my experience, if not much comes up, the pressure for conformity is usually the problem.

When it comes to dealing with conflict, it’s important to recognize that approaches can vary greatly across different cultures. Some cultures embrace direct and open conflict, while others prefer a more non-confrontational approach, handling conflicts behind closed doors. Therefore, finding the right balance and approach requires adaptation to cultural norms.

As with many cultural aspects, expectations on good conflicts need to come from the top, and to be reinforced everytime it happens. And the top is not only the team lead, it is any figure of authority: tech lead, product manager, senior developer, etc.

InfoQ: What suggestions do you have for good conflict resolution?

Løken: One thing is to cultivate self-awareness. Being aware of your own emotions and reactions is key. Just taking a short moment to pause and reflect on your feelings can help prevent saying or doing something that you might regret later.

It’s important to acknowledge your biases. We all possess biases that can lead to erroneous beliefs and harmful choices. It’s natural to trust individuals who resemble us more, so a helpful exercise is to envision how you would have responded if the conflict involved someone you have immense trust in.

As with any soft skill, it’s normal to make mistakes along the way. Stay humble and be willing to apologise sincerely when things go wrong. Apologising genuinely not only shows accountability, but also helps in building trust, two pillars of psychological safety.

InfoQ: How can we turn a not-so-good conflict into a good one?

Løken: That’s a tough one. To break a bad dynamic, you need to make some adjustments. Is the conflict’s goal unclear, or is there someone with a lot at stake who needs coaching to contribute positively to the resolution? Taking a short break where people can reconnect and focus on their commonalities is a great idea. How about an ice cream break?

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