Learning to love healthy conflict: How culture influences our approach to conflict

Madlen Popignatova 17
December 7th, 2020
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Learning to love healthy conflict: How culture influences our approach to conflict

Conflict is a natural – and necessary – part of life and relationships. It is how you handle that conflict that determines whether it will be a negative experience or a positive growth experience.

In the THNK Emerging Leaders Program, one of the topics we explore is healthy conflict, a constructive way of solving conflict that fosters respect and enables everyone involved to grow and evolve as a result. Bechara Abi Assi, the lead faculty member in the program, elaborates: “The idea is that managing conflict in a healthy way can help you find a better path, whether it’s a better solution or a more comprehensive perspective on the topic. Being able to approach conflict in a healthy way helps you expand your mind to give you a better answer.”

Culture & conflict

When participants from Class 1 of the Emerging Leaders Program were asked about their comfort with conflict, a lot of them began their answer by explaining their culture and background. Social entrepreneur Anna attributes her dislike of conflict to her upbringing in Asia, where conflict is typically avoided. Another participant credits her high tolerance toward conflict to her Mexican heritage and treating “life as a telenovela.”  Finally, Lili, a Finnish innovation coach working in Switzerland, admits that she has a tendency to shy away from conflict, but acknowledges it is a natural part of life and growth on both a personal and professional level.

In her book, The Culture Map, INSEAD professor Erin Meyer outlines eight scales on which to evaluate different cultures:

  • Communicating: explicit vs. implicit
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: deductive vs. inductive
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  • Trusting: task vs. relationship
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: structured vs. flexible

The “Disagreeing” scale measures tolerance for open disagreement and the inclination to see it as either helpful or harmful to work relationships. In short, different cultures have different ideas about how productive confrontation is for a team or organization.

Here is an example of culture mapping in action, comparing Germany, France, China, and Japan:

Map Out Cultural Conflicts on Your Team

Want to map your own countries? Check out Meyer’s Country Mapping Tool, which allows you to click on whichever countries you are working with and receive a cultural mapping of the selected countries and cultures. With this tool, you can compare how two (or more) cultures build trust, give negative feedback, and make decisions.

Can you learn to love conflict?

Besides culture, our childhoods and upbringing also have an impact on our approach to conflict. Dutch faculty member Annemarie Steen‘s parents were both dentists who valued rational thinking over “useless emotions” like anger and frustration – so she grew up suppressing these emotions, making it difficult to communicate when faced with conflict. For Bechara, on the other hand, growing up in the Middle East meant “harmony was king.” He explains, “Joining McKinsey, where (healthy) conflict is a part of its DNA, was a real shock for me. My first six months were a nightmare; people were telling me my slides were off, my solutions needed improvement, or my communication wasn’t clear. I took all of it personally, and that made me quite anxious and scared at work. Gradually, I learned this feedback on my work helps make it better and it’s not a judgment of me. From there, my perspective on conflict changed, and now I try to embrace it as much as I can.”

As Bechara illustrated, the good news is that managing conflict is something you can learn. Mastering healthy conflict is both a mindset and a practice.

Keep in mind that while you can learn to manage conflict in a healthy way, there will always be some discomfort around it. As Professor Mark de Rond says, “Any conflict feels awkward – ‘healthy’ conflict feels no less uncomfortable for being ‘healthy.'”

Learning to love healthy conflict: How culture influences our approach to conflict
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Start here: 5 tips to practice healthy conflict

  1. Focus on the approach. Outside of the conflict situation, Bechara says it’s just as important to discuss each person’s approach to conflict instead of only focusing on the content of the conflict itself. This might help each side get a better understanding of the other side’s approach, as well as build empathy by examining different perspectives. What does the situation look like for the other person?
  2. Don’t take it personally. When you take things personally, your ability to resolve conflict is dramatically diminished. If you can move beyond taking things personally, you can start to build a new narrative. Be open to what is happening for the other person and learn from the situation. It’s not easy, but it can be a huge growth experience for you both personally and professionally.
  3. Give yourself time. Oftentimes, resolving conflict takes more than one conversation. If you begin a process of conflict resolution and something throws you off, take a “time out.” Ask the other person if you can take time to think about what has come up so far and circle back to the conversation later when you’ve had ample time to reflect. THNK Partner Natasha Bonnevalle suggests, “Force yourself to reflect on the part you play. Think of what is the most truthful and valuable response. There’s the outcome for the business and the outcome for the relationship – it’s important to keep both in mind.”
  4. Identify where the tension sits in your body. When you are faced with conflict, where do you feel it in your body? In your neck, in your chest, in your gut? Try to relax that part of your body and use controlled breathing to release the tension. This can make it easier to face a confronting situation.
  5. Accept it. Whether you like it or not, conflict is going to be a part of your life, especially in your role as a leader, where you will be faced with difficult decisions, different personalities, and tough situations. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can start to build a healthy, productive attitude towards conflict and use it to elevate your leadership instead of letting it overpower you.

Discover tools to practice healthy conflict in the THNK Emerging Leaders Program.