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Conflict Avoidance Gets Us Nowhere. This Is How to Disagree Productively in an Angry World

By and large, we all suck at disagreements. But shying away from conflict is useless. We need it grow and learn. Here's how to do it productively.

By and large we all suck at conflict. Not everyone feels comfortable arguing or, for that matter, even engaging in an argument. Conflict avoidance becomes second nature. It makes sense: We tend to shy away from uncomfortable feelings and big issues because, well, they’re uncomfortable and who really wants to fight? This, of course, is not healthy or useful. By avoiding arguments we’re not being our true selves. Besides conflict is necessary for growth. The key, then, is to understand how to make disagreements productive.

“We should use the emotions triggered from conflict to their benefit,” says Buster Benson. “Emotions are the things that point to our values, our beliefs, our identity, the thing that are the most important. We should use that energy to have a conversation about the things that are important.”

A former product manager for such companies as Twitter and Amazon Benson has spent a lot of time managing productive disputes and understanding the mechanisms of conflict. His book Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement delves into productive disagreement and lays out a step-by-step framework to help us understand conflict and transform arguments from dreadful things into learning experiences. It’s a genuinely useful guide for understanding and correcting conflict avoidance.

Fatherly spoke to Benson about why so many of us suck at conflict, they keys to productive disagreement, and why asking the right questions is so essential.

We tend to have a pretty narrow view of conflict. We think of it as something terrible and avoidable. 

If you want to convince your kid to value cleanliness, you don’t just tell them to value cleanliness. You have to take a really wide approach. Sometimes it can take three, ten, or 20 years to really instill values in people and that’s the kind of approach we should have more often in disagreements — not just with children but with spouses and our bosses and our friends. Because these arguments are going to last for a long time. They’re not going to go away. Settling into them, letting them evolve and letting people evolve and develop is how we all grow. 

So, what is it that makes so many of us avoid conflict?

We avoid conflict because we were never taught how to argue productively. People stumble into this skill and can facilitate some things but most people are just left on their own. And when you’re not good at something you try to avoid situations where that skill is necessary to survive.

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In your book you break down some habits to help us break bad habits and make conflicts more productive. What are some of the most useful?

Well, the first one is paying attention to what sparks anxiety. So, if you’re on the verge of confronting someone and feel anxious about it, you need to look at that anxiety as a sign that something you feel is important is threatened. That means that, before you jump on someone else, you need to get clear on what it is that you’re really defending. Because sometimes you’ll defend something and the person might not have tried to threaten that. There could simply be a miscommunication right out of the gate. For instance, if you say “I worked really hard on this and this was really important to me,” they may say “Oh I wasn’t saying that at all. I was just getting this off my chest so I don’t know why you’re getting so angry.” That’s not a great start.

So, you need to step back and say “Okay, I feel undervalued” and then identify that initial value that is threatened. Then, it’s about asking a clarifying question. “Did you mean to say this? This is how I interpreted it.”

That’s great. But incredibly difficult to do in the moment.

Absolutely. It’s hard. When your blood pressure is spiking, your brain basically shuts down so there’s not a lot of thinking happening.

What I often recommend is to start a journal and write your arguments on any given day and piece them apart after the fact when your blood pressure has gone down. You should figure out What value was threatened? Did this person mean to threaten it? What kind of questions could I have asked? After you do that a dozen or so times you will then be conditioned during a conflict to think about how you’re going to have to write about this tomorrow. Eventually, that helps you influence not only what you’re going to write tomorrow but also helps you say some of the things that you wrote down previously in real time.

What’s something else that might be a bit more actionable? 

Another tip is to really figure out when you’re talking about something from your own perspective or projecting thoughts into someone else’s head. We often say things like “Those people are always doing this for these reasons.” By saying that, you’ve created a blob of people, projected thoughts into them, mind-read then, and are explaining a process to someone else who might actually understand the thought process that’s happening more intimately.

So instead of trying to imagine what other people are thinking, simply ask them. “Can you tell me why you did this? I interpreted this one way, but I want to hear your take.” Likewise, for yourself, say “My experience was this.” Or “My values are this I did this and these are the reasons I did this.” Then, let other people do the same for themselves.

So, you’re asking for explanations instead of being accusatory and going for the throat.  

Yes, and once you’re speaking for yourself, you need to ask questions that spark surprising answers. We often ask leading, or very narrow, questions where we already have judgements about the potential answers. Do you just hate people? Are you just evil? These aren’t questions. They’re judgements and you’re forcing the other person to respond to your judgements of them. You’re never going to be surprised by the answers.

Of course not.

What you want to do is draw a picture of their perspective better and then ask better and better questions, big questions like “What am I missing about your perspective that will help me understand it better?” Or “What formative events have led you to where you are?” Or “How has this been a useful skill or belief in your life?” This gives you a bit more color.

And it makes people put their guard down.  

Yes. The other upside is that these are pretty open questions, so not a lot of thought has to go into them and it gives you a chance to calm down and them a chance to take a step back as well and think about context. Then, you’re no longer on the battle ground, you’re talking about the issue.

It’s about being more empathetic. Doing the reaching.

The simplest empathy is allowing a person to be complex. It’s saying “Well, you’re a human, you have a complex rich character. I do, you do too. Help me see that a bit more.”

What are some surprising questions that help foster productive conflict?

The one I’ve found that’s the easiest is “What am I missing about your story here?” In other words, you’re saying “I have my own interpretation, but how do people like me misinterpret what you’re saying? What’s something about you that nobody has ever asked that would help me understand what the motivation behind this is?”

When they answer, you’re finding the thing that they think you don’t know about them that they think is really important. It’s a great question for learning something. You don’t have to repeat things that the asker already knows.

Another one is “What stories or events in your life led you to this position?” We usually focus on facts and evidence. We don’t really make our decisions or beliefs that way. We often use stories and less fact-based methods to form our beliefs. Asking for a story is a lot less threatening than asking for the facts.

I love that. And it’s a way to eliminate that confirmation bias or other biases that might be preventing you from understanding someone else’s opinion

And you’re getting a story instead of facts. Facts are pretty dry and hard to understand. Stories are what our lives are made out of. It’s a good strategy, but it’s also a more meaningful and fulfilling route.

What are some of the big issues that result in unproductive conflict?

Honestly, the thing I see the most and this happens in political conversations and applies to relationships as well, is that we’ll express some kind of confusion: “I just don’t get why you’re late all the time!” And the immediate next thought is “You must be an idiot! You must be lazy!” We’re confused about something, which means we don’t know something, and then we pour an uncharitable stereotype into that question. That’s where things are immediately unproductive. In this situation, that person feels like you’ve completely mischaracterized them.

We project our own answers into our questions. But that’s not a conversation, that’s a monologue. Instead, this is the perfect opportunity to ask a question. You’ve just said you’re confused about something. Instead of supplying the answer, the next thing said can be “Can you help me understand what happened?”

If someone is talking to another person — a spouse, a coworker — who’s more conflict averse, how do they engage them in a productive way?

Conversation is such a universal tool and oftentimes we think of conflict as the only conversation tool possible. Someone is upset and we say “What’s wrong? Are you mad at me? Do you want to talk about this right now?” They’re going to say no. But you can ask other questions that are going to get to the heart of it that will not come across as necessarily a disagreement. What happened today? How are you feeling? What’s on your mind? What are you looking forward to? What are you feeling blah about?

You don’t have to address it directly. First of all, you can think What is the conversation I want to have? Maybe you’ve done something wrong. You want to monologue about your own experience. You’re not asking them to argue with you necessarily — you’re just sharing your story.

How do you let them in?

You need to just pause and have some silence and see what happens. Most of the time, people will have something they want to say but they don’t know how to get the timing for it right. And the conflict-averse are often feeling just a little behind the pace of the conversation. Slowing it down, having some pauses, relaxing, and wandering around into a larger circle of the conversation will help. Eventually, the other person can step into it and say something. You have to create a lot of space and let people in.