King of Tension

By Roi Ben-Yehuda

In his majestic Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said,  “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

While King was addressing social change, his insights also apply to organizations. Unfortunately, unlike King, many leaders are afraid of the word “tension.” According to a study published by the Center of Effective Dispute Resolution, most managers would do pretty much anything to avoid conflict.

  • 35% said they would rather dive out of plane for the first time.

  • 27% said they would rather shave their head for charity.

  • 8% said they would rather eat bugs for a week.

The problem is that when conflict is avoided or handled poorly, it has a detrimental impact on motivation, well-being, and productivity. One U.S. study estimated the cost of badly managed conflict to be a whopping $359 billion a year.

On the other hand, studies have also shown that when managed well, conflict can be a great boon to teams and organizations. A 6-year study on 55 high-performing teams, for example, discovered that embracing debate is the single most important factor in determining the success of a team. Another study, exploring innovation, showed that when teams make constructive conflict part of their values they come up with 25% more ideas. If that is not music to your ears, a study on orchestras, demonstrated that symphonies that experience more conflict tend to perform slightly better than their less grumbling counterparts.

Conflict can be useful because it allows teams to surface disagreement, think divergently, ask better questions, and problem-solve. To return to King’s opening words, constructive tensions allow us to grow.

So, how can we have more tension in our lives?

The answer is developing conflict intelligence.

Conflict Intelligence (CIQ), a term developed by Columbia University’s Peter Coleman, is an assembly of skills and competencies that researchers of conflict resolution have identified as essential for understanding and managing (most) conflicts. Below are four CIQ competencies and tips on how to cultivate conflict intelligence.

1. Self-knowledge

The ancient injunction to “know thyself” is at the heart of effective conflict resolution. CIQ entails being aware of how our biases (including cultural norms) impact conflict perception; how our conflict orientations impact conflict behavior (do you tend to withdraw, yield, compete, compromise, or collaborate in situations of conflict?); and the role of our social identities in shaping who we consider is entitled to fair treatment.

Self-knowledge is also about regulating our emotions in tense situations. People who are adept at handling conflict are able to control and direct the intensity of their emotions.  As King himself cautioned:

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

Pro-tip: One of the simplest and most effective ways to take control of our emotions in conflict is to give them a label. Research shows that labeling an emotion—in contrast to suppressing or shouting it—reduces its intensity. Naming the feeling, if even just to yourself, allows you to regain composure, rethink the problem, and make better decisions.

2. Constructive conflict resolution

This is the skill of handling interpersonal conflict. The best means of resolving disputes emphasize communication and collaborative problem-solving. Proven tactics in this domain include:

  • Separating the people from the problem

  • Shifting perspectives

  • Establishing rapport

  • Focusing on common grounds

  • Asking open-ended questions

  • Using empathic listening

  • Focusing on people’s interests and needs

  • Coming up with options for mutual benefit

King was a big proponent of these skills. As he once proclaimed:

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

Pro-tip: When a difference of opinion ensues, listen to understand (rather than be understood), playback what you hear, and surface then bridge common interests.

3. Optimizing tensions

A more advanced form of CIQ is being able to deal with contradictory emotions, goals, and behaviors in a way that allows for constructive management of tensions. Studies on marriages, for example, show that even though positive interactions during conflict are important, negative interactions and the emotions associated with them can serve to fortify relationships as well. Likewise, studies also demonstrate that negotiations and difficult conversations are more constructive when people mix competitive with collaborative approaches.

Like tuning a guitar – too much and the string snaps, too little and it makes no sound – optimizing tensions is a delicate balance. In conflicts, wisdom entails knowing when escalation is called for and when deescalation is necessary. Too much tension and people resist change, too little and they lack incentives to change. For King, the power of creating constructive tension lay in its ability to surface injustice without paralyzing the opposition.

Pro-tip: Legitimize and normalize dissent by inviting your team to increase tension through inquiry and discussion. One way to address differences and reduce groupthink is to figuratively Put on the King’s Crown (why associate conflict with being the devil’s advocate?).

As a homage to Dr. King, to Put on the King’s Crown is to add creative tensions by bringing up counterpoints, information that has been prematurely discounted, or questions that have been ignored. It’s important to make sure this position is rotating so no one person gets stuck and associated with dissent (after a while the group will tune them out). If others aren’t picking up the mantle, invite tension by asking questions like “What’s a different way to look at this?” “What might we be overlooking?”

4. Conflict adaptivity

The final competency of CIQ is the ability to employ distinct strategies and tactics in different situations. This requires people to be able to assess conflict situations well (questions to consider include: How powerful are the parties? How are our goals linked? How important is the relationship?), have a variety of approaches at their disposal (e.g. competitive versus collaborative bargaining techniques), and select the ones that fit best given the demands of the situation.

Research shows that the best negotiators and mediators are not those who are chronically wedded to one approach (even if it’s collaboration), but rather those that are able to employ a wide-variety of strategies to deal with different conflict circumstances. Studies also show that a flexible style is associated with more positive experiences in conflict, additional learnings, and greater focus on both short and long-term goals.

Pro-tip: Take the CIQ assessment to figure out what your dominant approach to conflict is. If you tend to compromise and collaborate regularly, familiarize yourself with the more competitive and hard-ball approaches to conflict management. If, on the other hand, you get ultra-competitive when conflict arises, become conversant in the art of collaboration and win-win outcomes.

The good news is that CIQ can be developed. In fact, CIQ competencies like self-knowledge, inquiry, feedback, and collaboration are woven throughout all our workshops at LifeLabs Learning. While we can’t all be conflict geniuses like King, through a combination of education and experience, our capacity to understand, build, and manage conflict can grow.