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Turning Conflict into Creative Engagement

By Paul Horton, Principal, The Athena Group

At a recent training I co-led on the topic of participatory leadership, a central theme from participant conversations was ‘resistance’. Several people commiserated over how ‘stuck’ their teams were and how difficult it is to engage in thoughtful conversations that could help to move things forward in a healthy way. In a number of cases, morale was low, and people were engaging in a variety of disruptive and unproductive behaviors in and outside of meetings that felt to them like conflict.

What wasn’t obvious to this group is that these tell-tale signs of conflict are the very things that could help them to get ‘unstuck’ and unleash their truest creative potential.

The word conflict is highly charged and can illicit negative emotions and physical sensations. But more and more public agencies and businesses are embracing conflict in the work place. In fact, smart companies and institutions recognize that if understood and managed strategically, conflict can be a transformational tool to create stronger, better workplaces.

Here are a few important points about conflict:

  • Conflict is inevitable.  You could say that it’s just part of life (we’re human, after all).
  • We tend to shy away from it because of past negative experiences we’ve had with conflict.
  • But just because we ignore it, and despite our best efforts to seek harmony, conflicts don’t just magically go away.
  • The truth is that the longer we go without addressing conflicts, the bigger they become and the farther we move from each other – and the harder it is to get things done!

A helpful way to think about conflicts is as “differences that matter” (LeBardon, 2003).  Differences matter for two reasons. First, because no one learns anything without being open to contrasting points of view. Too often, people with alternative perspectives are discouraged from sharing them. Maybe they don’t feel they have the permission to be open and direct during meetings, perhaps because doing so will be perceived as challenges to the leadership. They might gossip or talk behind each other’s backs outside the meeting so key decision-makers don’t have access to what could be important data. In messy or complex environments where the path forward isn’t obvious, we need more, rather than fewer perspectives. We need to know where people stand. Differences, in this sense, are the catalyst for innovation and on-going learning.

The second reason differences matter is because people don’t like to be told what to do.  Over time, as frustrations and resentments from not feeling heard, not being included, or being discounted grow and aren’t attended to, resentments build up. The longer this goes on, things that were once below the waterline bubble up to the surface, and they ultimately turn into both covert and overt disagreement, dissent, disruption, or open conflict.

One doesn’t have to look far in most workplaces to find places where unproductive conflicts emerge in meetings and processes in both small and large ways, disrupting the optimal functioning and effectiveness of teams and eroding trust.

Of course, conflicts also show up in our communities and across the country. They show up as teacher strikes, student sit-ins, political rallies (think gun regulation, community policing, the MeToo movement). Most often, our response to these conflicts are polarizing rather than transforming.

The good news is that new, scientifically backed training methods, like Deep Democracy and CoResolve (Deep Democracy for the business setting), offer ways to both learn how to recognize early signs of conflicts as well as practical tools to help prevent situations from both becoming unmanageable. Once these tools are adopted, leaders and teams can open the highest creative potential of the group.


Paul Horton is a certified trainer of CoResolve, an adjunct to Deep Democracy designed for business and organizational settings and a principal member of The Athena Group.

Just announced, new 2-day Co-Resolve training, on July 19-20 in Seattle lead by Paul Horton and Aftab Erfa. Please email Paul (  to sign up or to get more info.


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