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I’m trying to fall in love with conflict

I cried in a team meeting this week.

The tears came from tension: my job requires conflict, yet I hate conflict. Over time, emotional strain from small conflicts built up in me.

Conflict can be healthy. Conflict drives progress. Conflict sharpens thoughts, improves plans, stretches people to be better versions of themselves. At Aula, one of our values is to be Transparent by Default. Transparency surfaces conflicts. Part of my role is to challenge folks across the company: finding weak spots in plans, surfacing risks, encouraging high standards.

Yet conflict feels heavy. I imagine my team thinking I, Rune, am not knowledgeable enough to challenge them. Or that I, Rune, am claiming to know more about their work than they do. Or that I, Rune, am just getting in their way.

I didn’t share this heaviness with my team. Until this week.

I grew up in a home without much explicit conflict. As a result, conflict feels unnatural and almost always heavy. I have to learn to love it. The first step on my journey is to recognise a distinction between two kinds of conflict:

Dial up tactical conflict, dial down personal conflict.

Tactical conflict is healthy. The conflict centres on the problem, the tactics. Progress comes from tactical conflict. It’s a mutual exploration, an intellectual tango: “Might there be a better solution than the one we have now?” More of this.

Personal conflict is heavy. The conflict centres around the people involved: trust, intentions, feelings of self-worth. Instead of thinking like one unit, I worry: “Did that comment imply that I am not good enough?” Less of this.

The problem is that by default I experience conflict as personal. Unless it’s abundantly clear that it’s a tactical conflict. I imagine others do too.

Personal conflict blocks tactical conflict. When I feel unsafe, I am less likely to change my mind in response to a good challenge. I end up stubborn and drained.

The solution is to be explicit to others that I'm engaging in tactical conflict, not personal conflict. Being specific on the tactics I'm challenging. Naming my appreciation for the effort and the human behind the thought I'm challenging. Leaving no room for ambiguity. And ask that my team does so in return.

This way, we get the progress without the fear.