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‘Conflict’ Sounds so Harsh

By Patrick Lencioni - June 2017

Over the years, I’ve been asked more than a few times about why I chose the word ‘conflict’ in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team model. “Why not ‘discussion’ or ‘debate’ or ‘disagreement’?” It’s a good question, asked disproportionately by people from Canada, Minnesota and Utah, it seems. For so many people, the idea of conflict seems to imply something negative, even harsh. I suppose that’s why I think it’s the right word.

When it comes to building a truly cohesive team, there is no way to avoid being uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. And yet it is so tempting to try. “Let’s just agree to disagree.” “Let’s take that off-line.” “I think we agree more than we disagree.” It is astounding to me the lengths many leaders will go to avoid that moment, that awkward moment, when two people realize that they “passionately disagree” (a.k.a. engage in conflict) about something very important. And no matter how well those people know one another, and how many times they have had those moments, it will ALWAYS be uncomfortable.

I’ve been married for almost twenty-five years, and my wife and I have had our fair share of healthy conflict. And no matter how well I know her, how much I’m committed to her, and how confident I am that we’ll work through those moments, I am still not completely comfortable when it happens. And I never will be, because I’m human. I simply cannot have a passionate, unfiltered and completely honest disagreement with another person without some level of…what should I call it? Fear. Guilt. Anxiousness. Exasperation. Whether those emotions are rational or justified is less important than whether they are inevitable. And they are inevitable.

And so, I use the word conflict intentionally, to prepare people for the full challenge that it presents. Calling it discussion or debate or simple disagreement tempts them to strive to avoid the raw and difficult reality that conflict entails.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and you find yourself trying to avoid one of those uncomfortable moments that go beyond mere discussion, stop and let everyone know that you’re going to overcome your fears and engage in real conflict, and that you’re doing so for the good of the team. It will diffuse the inevitable tension that is tempting everyone to back off, and give them permission to acknowledge their own fears. I find that this really works. Even in Canada.

To learn more about conflict, click here.