Conflict, differences and your ego

To manage our egos, it is helpful to be aware of the tension that emerges when opposing points of view threaten our sense of identity and self-esteem.

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D., Organization Development Psychologist

Conflict that is unresolved and emotionally heated is typical in human behavior. It is a central source of life’s difficulties, and it is also a source of frustration for leaders who want their employees and teams to be productive and creative. Unresolved disagreement undermines productivity, engagement, and enjoyment.

Understanding the dynamics of conflict will help.

Conflict is the clash of differing viewpoints concerning goals, strategies, values, or facts. Hence, they are such a normal component of human interaction. We easily manage differences where there is no clash, such as you prefer red, and I like orange, or when I enjoy cats and you like dogs.

Clashes settled without delay are not a concern. As head of marketing, I believe the sales budget should have a higher priority than your production budget. You, of course, disagree. But we quickly work out a comprise. As we shall see, the clash could even resolve synergistically to the benefit of everyone.

So, what happens when disagreements remain unresolved? The clash occurs when one or both parties insist on having their viewpoint acknowledged as correct and/or acted upon. We’re not talking about occasions where I know I’m right, and it’s okay for you to be wrong. We are talking about when I need you to agree that I’m correct, and you, just as insistently, refuse and want me to accede to your point.

As a result, it takes two to make a conflict. And either person can help to end it by doing three things: being genuinely curious, interested, and appreciative.

  1. Be curious and inquire about the other person’s point of view. You never know what you might learn!
  2. Be interested in how the person came to their position and how it might work.
  3. Appreciate the person’s feelings about their point of view and the fact that they shared it with you.

None of the three calls for you to agree.

Note the word “genuinely,” meaning here to listen without judgment. We are all good bullsh-t detectors, and when we detect that’s what is being offered, we feel discounted, and the conflict will remain emotionally charged and further deteriorate.

When you listen this way, your agreement with what they’re saying is unnecessary. Pay attention to the individual’s concerns, feelings, and priorities. Share what you believe you heard and ask if you were on target.

Being heard is a basic human need that is frequently unsatisfied. Filling that need for someone is an ego stroke that costs us nothing. Being heard has a calming impact, allowing the person’s ability to listen to resurface and potential resolution.

Through listening and curiosity, the core value of differences becomes available. Differences are the only source of learning we have. We have no other source of learning. Can you think of something you learned that wasn’t from something that was different?

Learning from differences does, however, calls for putting your ego aside. Are you mature enough to recognize your ego and its issues in order to manage it rather than be managed by it?

To manage our egos, it is helpful to be aware of the tension that emerges when opposing points of view threaten our sense of identity and self-esteem. To maintain our non-judgmental listening, park that issue in your mind’s parking lot for later introspection.

Remember that differences are the only source of learning we have! Learning about yourself, others, and the vast world of diverse views, ideas, opinions, and beliefs that underpin all synergy, creativity, and innovation.

Above all, learning from differences dispels hostile conflict and supports the healthy relationships needed for healthy and effective teams and organizations. Conflict becomes learning!

Next article: Exploring win/lose power dynamics.

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of the Center for Human Systems. Check him out on his website at Or email him at if you have questions about effectively leading or managing change.

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