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Can’t We All Not Get Along? 5 Rules for Healthy Conflict

How to initiate professional conflicts without upsetting your colleagues or getting accused of being a "hater."
COLLABORATORS Margaret Heffernan
Rules for healthy conflict
illustration by Todd Detwiler

We all know that healthy conflicts are an essential part of any well-oiled management team’s routine. But initiating conflict is never easy. No one wants to be the person who raises contentious points. Because when you’re the one who speaks up, well then it’s you who prolongs the meeting, or ruffles a teammate’s feathers, or stands accused of negativity.

Here at The Build Network, we’re always looking for smart tips on the subject of healthy conflict among teammates. It’s one reason we hold The Table Group’s advice in such high regard.

So, we were thrilled when we spotted Margaret Heffernan’s “5 Rules for Productive Conflict” on the TED blog not long ago. Heffernan is an international businesswoman, management expert, and author of three books. Here are her rules.

1. Appoint a devil’s advocate. “Someone whose excellence is demonstrated by the quality of questions they ask. Great questions include: ‘What are the best reasons not to do this?’ ‘What don’t we know that, if we did know, would change our decision?’ ‘If we had more money or time, what would we do?’ ‘If this were a documentary, what would be the narrative arc?’ It’s important that different people play the role of devil’s advocate: if it is always the same person, they’ll get tuned out — and burned out.”

2. Find allies. “If you have concerns, try asking others privately, ‘Are you OK with this? Does anything about this bother you? Is there another way to frame this question?’ Having allies allows you to work together to be creative and solve the problem.”

3. Listen for what is NOT being said. “If the conversation is being framed about money, consider what is not being talked about. If everyone’s talking technology, what have they left out of their equation? Sometimes it’s helpful to bring in an outsider to help with this. They should do nothing but listen. Then, ask for their impressions — not recommendations. They may notice trends that people embroiled in the conversation simply can’t.”

4. Imagine you cannot do what you all want to do. “In other words, think about what you would do if you could fire someone, if you could change the timetable, or if you were allowed to cancel the deal. If you could do any of those things — would you still proceed with your plan? What are the hidden orthodoxies nobody is challenging?”

5. After a decision is made, declare a cooling off period. “Ask everyone to go home and think about the decision on their own as well as discuss it with their family. Come back after a prescribed amount of time and ask the group: Does the decision still look great?”



Heffernan's advice is great for initiating healthy conflicts, but what can you do if the conflict already exists and you need the right words to untangle it?

We recommend Barry Moltz's article "10 Phrases That Can Resolve Any Conflict" on the American Express Open Forum blog.

Moltz uses the book Perfect Phrases for Conflict Resolution, by Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gerschel, to form his list.

We'll tease you with the first item: "The last thing I want to say is no."

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Can’t We All Not Get Along? 5 Rules for Healthy Conflict

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