The First Steps in Becoming Conflict Competent


When it comes to conflict, are you more than eager to put on a pair of bright red boxing gloves and hop into the ring for a few rounds? Or, do you run so fast you leave a trail of dust behind you? Conflict brings out the fight-or-flight response in all of us. By learning and practicing new skills, you can make it less painful and scary. You can even make conflict productive!

Is There Such a Thing as Positive Conflict?

Conflict is any situation in which people have apparently incompatible interests, goals, principles, or feelings. It is triggered by:

A precipitating event, where someone says or does something that causes you to believe that his/her interests, goals, principles, or feelings are incompatible with or threatening yours, and

Hot buttons, which are situations or behaviors in others that tend to frustrate or irritate you enough to cause you to overreact.

From that description, it might seem as if conflict could never be positive. But in fact, there are two types of conflict–cognitive and affective–and cognitive conflict is constructive, or positive. It’s focused on tasks and problem-solving.

With this type of conflict, arguments can be spirited, but the overall emotional tone remains neutral and can even be positive. Cognitive conflict leads to creativity, energy, higher productivity, and stronger relationships.

Affective conflict is destructive. It’s centered on winning at all costs. It involves blaming, retaliation, avoidance, and anger. It can lead to poor morale and bad decision-making, and it can destroy relationships.

Is It Possible to Become Conflict Competent?

Yes! By combining changes in thoughts, emotions, and behavior, you can indeed get comfortable with conflict and deal with it like a pro. You can learn to enhance productive outcomes of conflict while reducing the likelihood of escalation or harm. Here are a few ways to kick-start that process:

Understand that conflict is inevitable. It can lead to positive or negative results, depending on how you handle the situation. You don’t always have to be victimized by a conflict—you have a choice in how you approach it and react to it.

See the positives. Positive outcomes result from focusing on tasks and problem-solving rather than winning the fight.

Increase your cognitive skills. Develop self-awareness in regards to your attitudes and responses to conflict. Ask yourself these types of questions:

  • How do I feel about opinions and views that are different than my own? Do I welcome or shun them?
  • Do I view differences as opportunities for personal growth?
  • When a challenging discussion arises, am I excited about the possibility of new and innovative ideas, negotiation, and a better understanding of the other person involved?
  • Do I avoid confrontation like I avoid the plague, or my ex?
  • Does the mere thought of a disagreement leave my stomach in knots?
  • Do I get angry and defensive when conflict arises?
  • Do I have destructive thoughts in response to conflict, such as the desire to slip a laxative into my co-worker’s hot mug of coffee?

Increase your emotional skills. After some heartfelt answers to the aforementioned questions, you can begin to increase your ability to regulate your negative responses to conflict. This will help you maintain emotional balance during a disagreement.

Don’t forget, you are not the only person involved. Strive to understand and sympathize with the emotions of others, just as you want them to understand yours.

Slow down when you are in a heated discussion. Take a moment to cool down when needed. If the situation is getting too intense, take a “time out” to apply additional cooling-down techniques. This will help to prevent hurt feelings and frustration.

Increase your behavioral skills. There are many behavioral changes you can make to become more conflict competent, but one of the most important is to become an active listener. Stop to acknowledge the perspectives, emotions, and needs of the person you are in conflict with. Show him or her that you have taken in what he or she has said rather than immediately moving on to sharing your own thoughts. Once you have acknowledged the other person, share your own thoughts, feelings, and interests.

Your conflict competence will result in stronger relationships with your boss, co-workers, and employees-not to mention the fact that you’ll come up with creative solutions to problems more quickly than ever before.

We’ll give you even more examples and concrete techniques for building your conflict competence in future articles.

“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict–alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.”
– Dorothy Thompson


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