Conflict: A Catalyst

August 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

I ran across this wonderful TED Talk from Margaret Heffernan discussing the constructive role of conflict within organizations.

To summarize the video, Heffernan shared the story of Dr. Alice Stewart who was a epidemiologist in the 1950’s. She specialized in the study of patterns and she began looking at the rise of childhood cancers and trying to find a cause. Her partner, George Kneale,was a keen statistician and his role was to review her data and prove her wrong. She used conflict with her partner to strengthen her argument for the cause she discovered which turned out to be doctors using the relatively new technology of x-rays on pregnant women. Unfortunately, it continued to take the medical establishment another 20 years before they stopped the practice. Dr. Stewart knew that she needed her data and analysis of it to be as strong as possible and she used conflict constructively to achieve that.

As Heffernan notes, as individuals, we generally do everything we can to avoid conflict. When there is conflict, it creates stress and we take steps to avoid conflict. But, could we turn this conflict into an opportunity to become stronger? Isn’t that really what change boils down to – conflict?

Now, I am not talking about the useless kind of conflict that goes nowhere (think all the arguments you ever had with a sibling in the backseat of a car on a long trip).

I am talking about the conflict you have when you hate going to work every day because the job is boring. Maybe that conflict is telling you its time to move on to a better and more challenging position.

Have you ever had a conflict with a friend who is asking you to do something different? Is she pushing you to expand and try something new or address a habit that’s not constructive?

Ever had conflict with your children? Isn’t that usually them trying to exert their own influence and independence?

Conflict starts a conversation. I think Margaret Heffernan is right to recommend embracing conflict and using it as a tool to dig deeper and understand the issues. The next time you encounter conflict, can you reframe it and use it to develop an action plan to move forward?

Posted by: Heather Comstock


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