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Embrace Conflict, Improve Collaboration

With Bermon Painter

Our lizard brains can cause us problems. Lizard brains are our primitive reactions taking over. They will always try to prevent us from trying things that are new or risky in order to satisfy our need to stay safe. Our lizard brains will sabotage everything we try to satisfy the needs higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Often our role [as web developers and project managers] is to mediate communication between stakeholders, or what will happen is that we come away from a conversation believing the other person understands, only to have something that does not meet expectation built. We need to deal with conflict, instead of avoiding it, which is our lizard brain reaction.

Some example conflict situations (that may or may not be based on Bermon’s personal experience):

  • changing the website's colours to a spouses preference

  • a teammate is not pulling their weight

  • a key stakeholder pulls out

  • the client wants you to make the logo bigger

  • the project manager allows multiple stakeholders to drive the project causing scope creep

  • client is sending you their own wireframes, trying to solutioneer the situation

If we don’t embrace conflict and address these issues they can kill the morale of the team, drive up costs, and delay delivery dates. Conflict is not contention (angry yelling). Conflict does not have to be adversarial: there is no winner or loser in conflict. The best teams I've worked with have embraced and managed conflict at all levels. Teams that have avoided conflict tend to default to average ideas and products.

So how do we skillfully address emotionally charged issues? First, it’s absolutely possible to be 100% honest and 100% respectful. (Your goal in addressing conflict is not to nail them to the wall.) For this, we need to understand our own behaviours and why we have trouble dealing with conflict. Our lizard brain’s fight or flight response must be overcome so we can think about the conversation we need to have. We often fail at conflict because conflict comes by surprise, our brain does not fire the way it should, and instead of thinking of the right thing to say in the moment, we think about it driving home later. We also often fail at conflict because we tend to double down on an initially wrong response, e.g. if our initial response is flight we may continue to not say anything, be sarcastic, or sugar coat the issue. If our initial response is fight we may continue to force our opinions on others, stereotype, categorize and dehumanize by name calling, belittling or threatening.

To determine whether you feel unsafe take notice of physical cues in yourself such as tenseness, sweaty hands, and dry mouth, and emotional cues like anger, hurt feelings, and fear. In others we can look for cues like raised voices or stony silence, or finger wagging. These cues indicate that you or they are feeling unsafe in the conversation and that you need to take steps to make the lizard brains feel safe again in order to enable rational responses. We need to avoid being held hostage by our emotions.

Some things we can do to help our lizard brains feel safe:

  • Stick to facts. When doing a design critique focus the conversation around the facts. You can say something like, "I don’t feel so hot about where this conversation is going so let’s just focus on the facts for a second."

  • Mirror back. A very simple technique is to mirror back what someone just said which has the duel benefit of validating what they just said, giving them the feeling that they’ve been heard, and gives them the opportunity to correct any misconceptions.

  • Paraphrase. Paraphrasing someone's explanation back to them gives you a chance to digest and understand what they just said. The other person can then also clarify points if in your paraphrasing a misunderstanding is revealed.

  • Contrast. If you have trouble paraphrasing, try to come up with a contrasting statement, e.g. "So you don’t want me to…?". These past three examples will not only help everyone’s lizard brains feel safe, but also will help you understand the situation better too.

The goal with these techniques is to create a safe environment for the team where important and relevant information can be shared – information that you need in order to make management or product decisions. This doesn’t mean every decision needs to be by committee, but everyone should be able to share their ideas without fear of negative impact. The goal is not to persuade others that your ideas are right, the goal is merely to get all ideas out there. We can disagree and still like each other.

The world views we create may be absolutely wrong, so we should challenge ourselves and others to expand world views.