The Two Magic Words for Productive Conflict

I’m really tired of watching team members fight over who’s right. It’s such a waste of time. And it’s all the more frustrating because conflict can be healthy - if it’s done right.

We need more and better conflict for team effectiveness, but in order to do that we need to stop fighting over one single truth.

For example, take this global bank I worked with. The head of international business got into it with the head of risk management, saying, essentially, “We have got to invest in country A. We need 200% growth in 18 months. You have no clue!”

The head of risk management came right back with, “We can’t invest there. We can’t take on that much risk. YOU have no clue!” Growth vs. risk management.

This conversation is set up to be adversarial from the start. When two people act like only one of them can be right, they spend most of their time going back and forth - and little time going forward. That’s not a very productive conversation.

There’s another way. Instead of one truth, name two truths (or three, or four). In the case of this bank, they could say, “We need to grow AND we need to manage risk.” Two truths.

By naming both issues as true, everyone can relax and focus on coming up with a solution. If your team is stuck in a one-truth conflict, try writing the two truths on a white board. (It’s amazing how writing something down makes people feel validated.)

Here’s what this looks like: A non-profit I worked with was locked in conflict. The head of fundraising was saying, “We have to show the Board the projected deficit for next year. They need to understand the urgency of fundraising.” Meanwhile, the head of finance was saying, “Are you crazy? We can’t show a deficit, we have a fiduciary responsibility to balance the books.”

But by acknowledging both things as true, they came to a simple solution. They would show the size of the projected deficit and then show the items they would have to remove from the plan to save the money required to balance the books. That meant the Board would feel that sense of urgency over all the great programming that was being sacrificed, but still see the staff knew how to make the tough decisions required to balance the books.

Two truths, one solution. Productive Conflict.