Conflict the good and the bad

Working with people in professional settings for even a short time and eventually, there will be conflict. Personal life can be no different either. As the middle child of three boys, there was no absence of conflict in our house growing up. Unfortunately, as one could imagine with three boys, the conflict could sometimes become physical. As we mature we hopefully realize that is not a good choice. We do need to realize that all conflict is not bad.

What makes conflict good?

Constructive conflict will focus on issues. If we keep a focus toward solutions we can aim for a better outcome. We also need to remember to keep an open mind when listening to others concerns. We don’t want to dismiss the ideas that someone might share.

What makes conflict bad?

Destructive conflict will focus on people. We cannot let comments get personal. Make sure you are listening and not judging or thinking about what you are going to say. This is a common thing we do, as we listen we focus on what are we going to say next.

Catabolic and Anabolic Conflict

Ken Johnson a professional mediator defines the two types of conflict as Catabolic and Anabolic. Catabolic is the typical conflict that is chronic and unresolved. It usually deals with communication and role issues. The anabolic conflict involves open discussion and honest introspection. The issue with anabolic conflict is more direct and in your face where catabolic conflict builds over time. Catabolic conflict can result from a communication breakdown.
Conflict can arise in professional settings as well as at home or with friends. I distinctly remember a day at work many years ago where two people had a major disagreement that resulted in yelling and shouting. I have not worked in any place where this is common behavior but, it is good to know how to handle conflict.

Handling Conflict

The University of California in San Diego has some excellent suggestions in how to handle conflict. The first step is to talk to the other person, find a time that works in an environment that you won’t be bothered. If you need time to gather yourself and get mentally prepared do so. Next focus on behaviors and events, not personalities, this is similar to what we spoke about before in what makes conflict good or bad. Think about the possibility of a better outcome.


Listen carefully to the other person’s viewpoints. This is similar to what Stephen Covey discusses in his book The 8th Habit. He describes empathetic listening using the “Native Indian Talking Stick”. This is held by the person talking and stifles interruptions. It is not passed back until the person restates the others concerns. Then we can identify points of agreement and disagreement between both sides. Each side then prioritizes the concerns they have.


Develop a plan to work on the high impact areas with a focus toward the future. We can’t let discussions get bogged down over things in the past. Also, set up times to continue the discussion. Make sure to follow through on your plan aim for a collaborative solution. Build on the successes you have and point them out to the other side. Complement each other to keep up the positive atmosphere.


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