Co-authored with Tricia Turton
Conflict is everywhere. It surrounds us in our daily lives -- the guy who is honking in the car behind, the person who cuts the line at the airport, the co-worker who disagrees with us and the spouse who forgot to buy coffee. We experience conflict and we observe conflict. Conflict surrounds us in our business lives, but we tend to avoid it and hope it goes away instead of exploring it and perhaps using its creative potential. That's right, conflict can be creative and constructive.
We love conflict when it happens to others. We love to watch reality shows, TV series and movies full of dramatic confrontations. We love to laugh at the absurdity of behaviors that occur when other people clash. We love to watch our sports teams and athletes square off. We take sides, trying to find wrong and right and wait for the emergence of winners and losers. We crane our necks at car wrecks, we watch debates and we eavesdrop on heated conversations. We even snicker privately at the couple having it out in public. We love drama -- the heightened emotions that arise from such passionate interactions appeal to something inside us.
However, when it comes to experiencing conflict ourselves, we fight, flee or freeze. Conflict is uncomfortable -- our breath shortens, our pulse goes up, our muscles tense, we clench our teeth, emotions rise to our throat and we seem to lose control of what we say or do. We often feel embarrassed and humiliated if we backed out, but we also regret it if we confronted the other person ready for a fight. Conflict is uncomfortable.
Imagine a meeting, you just presented your idea -- something you have been working on for a month. You love your idea and you believe it will really benefit your business. Then somebody across the table says: "That's a really bad idea!" Imagine your reaction. Is it calm and composed, or is your heart skipping beats as you try to respond?
Business people can learn a lot from boxers. Boxers know a lot about conflict -- they practice it as their passion and sometimes as their profession. When they enter the ring, they experience confrontation in its most physical manifestation. Boxers know that if you let the fight-or-flight mechanisms take over you are not going to have a good fight. The out-of-control, raging animal is not a good boxer -- it's reactions are delayed, its tense limbs are slow, its angry brain is not focused and clear. Boxers learn that simply recognizing the way the body prepares for conflict can help them be more comfortable in the ring and be better at conflict.
Tricia, one of the authors of this article, fought many boxing fights as an amateur and 2002 National Champion as well as professional, fighting twice for the world title. Tricia now coaches boxers to be better at conflict. What Tricia discovered was that many of her clients were business owners and leaders who come to the gym, not only for the fitness value, but to experience the intense situations that boxing offers. They often felt that the intensity of experience in the ring matches the intensity of experience in a boardroom. They wanted to be better at conflict.
That's right -- you can be better at conflict and that's a valuable skill. Approach conflict with curiosity rather than fight-or-flight, and you will discover how constructive fighting can be. Watch yourself and watch the other person in any confrontation, and recognize the automatic signs and that in and of itself will make you a better "fighter" -- in the boardroom or the cubicle.
Because conflict can be constructive and creative. Our country was born out of conflict, the universe started with a Big Bang; we are born crying our lungs out. Conflict brings the truth out of us and our relationships and then helps us build something new and something stronger. We read research that couples who fight early in their relationship tend to have better and stronger relationship. The ability to passionately disagree and find the truth in an argument is very valuable to any business or personal relationship.
Tricia calls this "sharing punches" -- the ability to fight without hurting each other. The notion of "sparring" -- conflict under control -- is very intriguing in business and in life. Boxers have to train to fight, but they also don't want to get hurt in a training fight and never make it to the tournament. That's why they spar -- a fight where the punches are real but not meant to hurt.
Any relationship can be made better if the two people learn to spar. The ability to confront each other with arguments, with passion, even with emotion, but also to find that balance between your point of view and hurting the other person can be so valuable. This controlled conflict will allow you to bring to light all the strengths and weaknesses you each bring to the relationship and all the passion you have, but will prevent you from hurting each other beyond repair.
Sparring takes a lot of skill. It means recognizing the reactions of the body and keeping them in check; it means asking yourself to approach conflict with curiosity rather than blind reaction. Most of all, however, it means trusting the other person to do the same -- to control themselves and not "escalate" the debate into a bloody and mindless fight.
Conflict is everywhere and we tend to avoid it. We frown upon it. Perhaps we should embrace it. We can learn to be more comfortable in the fight and we all need the creative power of conflict. It makes relationships stronger if we can learn to "share punches" with each other. A lesson we can learn in business and in life.
Tricia Turton is the owner and head-coach of Arcaro Boxing Gym in Seattle where she trains competitive boxers and many business people. She is also a former national champion and professional boxer with two title fights in her career. Tricia is a frequent speaker on topics of conflict, passion and training your mind and body.