Why Conflict Can Actually be Good for You

January 25, 2024

The role of questions – and conflict – in engagement

A lot of people don’t like conflict, and want it to end. Though we often respond to conflict as a problem to be solved or resolved, in fact there are many reasons to embrace conflict.

It is natural to have conflict, which is a necessary part of individual and social relationships. Think about what it would mean to have no conflict: we would be no different than anyone else, and we would not learn, grow or correct ourselves, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant observed.

But we are not all the same, and we don’t have the same goals — having no conflict could only be forced, as in the authoritarian societies sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf thought about (note: link opens as a PDF download). Democracy allows us to have conflict without war.

Approaching conflict in this way – almost welcoming it, being comfortable in it – allows us to discover more about one another (affirming our relationship) while also discovering more possibilities for solutions.

The key though is that while some kinds of conflict can be good, productive, or “healthy,” other kinds of conflict can be destructive of relationships.

So, what makes the difference? How can a bad conflict become a good one?

Questions can serve an important role in how conflict can be made better. Employing curiosity and “appreciative inquiry” are two ways that might help you ask better questions.

“Appreciative inquiry” has its origins in an effort to help improve the management culture at the Cleveland Clinic in the 1980s. It focuses on appreciating and valuing the best of the current situation, and then collaboratively asking questions that encourage imagination and creativity like, “What might be?” or, “What should be the ideal?”

In other words, are you approaching conflict as a problem to be solved, or your organizational effort as a mystery yet to uncover? The kinds of questions we ask influence the answers we find.

When we approach each other and our communities with wonder and curiosity, much more is still possible than we can imagine alone.

Curiosity may seem simple, but this can be really tough when you are locked into a conflict in which you think you know all about what the other side thinks or believes. Being truly curious is a way to remind ourselves about what we don’t know.

As the journalist and mediator Amanda Ripley has put it, curious questions can make “conflict suddenly interesting again.” Some of Ripley's go-to questions include:

  • “What is oversimplified about this conflict?”
  • “What do you want to understand about the other side?”
  • “What do you want the other side to understand about you?”
  • “Tell me more.”

What is common in both of these approaches is what questions allow for – these approaches don’t see conflict as a problem to be solved but rather something to be better understood – a moment for possibilities and deeper understanding.

Maybe a helpful thing to think about at the start of a new year: when we approach each other and our communities with wonder and curiosity, much more is still possible than we can imagine alone.

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