Picking your language is more important than picking your battle

19 January 2016

“Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.”

I have read a lot about the importance of embracing conflict in the workplace.  The discussion varies but the basic premise is a ‘dose of healthy conflict’ is essential to the success of any and all business.  The inescapability of conflict is viewed as key to creativity, essential to innovation and robust decision-making.  A sort of ‘nanny-state’ call-to-arms narrative for business where over-zealous conflict management and political correctness have denuded the workplace of its real ‘punch’ and bred legions of unhelpful ‘yes-people’.


I am fully aware that disagreement in all workplaces is inevitable.  We are after all, all different.  And we enmesh ourselves in a web of work relationships with other different people that constantly influence us and our responses; opportunities for dispute are endless.  Disagreements are not just inevitable, 69% of all relationship issues are “perpetual”, that is they are likely to recur for the length of the relationship (Gottman).

That disagreement is therefore something that will never be solved but must be managed is why doing so through the language of ‘conflict’ is such a bad idea.

Personally, hearing the term ‘conflict’ makes me bristle.  I am already operating in my mammalian brain and the potential for me getting to flight/ fight is heightened, I am already thinking about survival.  This is certainly not me learning at my best, or contributing to creative solutions.  I know from facilitating teams that I am not alone.  

Whatever our instinctive reaction to the language, using metaphors of war – be it “conflict”, “picking your battles”, “frontline” or “fighting” – within the workplace is not going to engender collaboration or manage disagreement in a ‘healthy way’.  We are not at our most creative when our survival instincts kick-in or we feel under threat.

How we talk about, as well as act when we work together is essential to our happiness and well-being in our work.  Why would anyone leap out of bed in the morning to come to a place of work that would describe “serious disagreement or argument, typically of a protracted nature” as the order of the day?  ‘Conflict’ defines relationships as combative and stress-inducing, and we know employees experiencing high levels of stress are 70% more likely to be sick.

This doesn’t mean adopting a business culture of appeasement, acquiescence or avoidance.  The uniqueness, difference and passion of employees are essential to their purpose for coming to work and any organisation’s biggest strength.  What matters is creating a culture that operates within a certain range of tension, with clear rules and boundaries to encourage this difference and dissent in a way that stimulates and engages creativity and collaboration by:

  1. Investing time in creating high-quality relationships

Good relationships are officially the key to a good life, and happiness in our work.   When good we are able to converse more openly and honestly knowing the relationship is resilient to the debate.  We are more able to depersonalise disagreement because we know and appreciate the other people involved.

  1. Paying attention to the language of how you work together

Ask questions like, “how do we make decisions?”, “when are people genuinely able to influence the direction?”and “when things get difficult how will we behave?”   Create a genuinely shared language and understanding of how, when and in what contexts dissent is welcome, and when it is not.

As an example, I particularly like the narrative of the ‘in/ out’ culture used by Suzy Levy at The Red Plate to describe valuing difference.

  1. Knowing yourself

Encourage everyone to understand how they instinctively react when there is disagreement, they feel challenged or get passionate.  Reflection will identify where they can pay more attention to take responsibility for acting within the rules and valuing the contributions of all.  Myers-Briggs or Insights profiles support this, as does an understanding of the Drama Triangle or the 9 personality types of the Enneagram, so simply explained by Maney & Watson.

  1. Training managers

Managers have to lead comfortably and fairly when there is debate, apply the agreed rules and know how to spot when things are tipping into conflict, or bullying or any other unhealthy way of working – and importantly when they may need help to address it.  When working in non-traditional management structures think about how this role could be held.

Talking about how your organisation engages in ‘spirited discussion’ or ‘healthy debate’ may not make such snappy headlines for your cultural hand book but it is likely to be a more productive, creative and happier way to work.


Nicola Waterman, Associate

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