How Conflict Can Make You a Better Person


Today I’m talking with Amy Gallo, who is the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, co-host of the Women at Work podcast, and a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, where she writes about workplace dynamics. Amy gave a great Ted talk about the gift of conflict, which is what I want to dive into with her today. 

Listen To The Podcast Here

Amy, thanks for being with us, it’s great to have you here. 

So before we dive into the gift of conflict. I want to back up a little bit and ask you to give us some perspective on what generally brings conflict into our lives. You know–is it us? Or is it them? 

It’s a very interesting question, right? What does bring conflict into our lives? Um, so I think one of the main things is that it’s often about a misunderstanding or miscommunication. And that we say something, we think something, we believe something that just isn’t true. Or the other person believes or thinks or see something that isn’t true. And there’s also of course, times where we’re just misaligned or misaligned on our values or our goals. We just want different things from the relationship, from the situation.

So the answer to your question, is it us? Or is it them? It’s both. And you know, the phrase it takes two to tango is absolutely right. Conflict often has its roots in a dynamic between two people, rather than it really being attributable to one person or the other.

Right. I think that’s really helpful instead of thinking like, Oh, it’s just that other people are jerks, which is kind of attempting to say. It’s more like, what is the miscommunication or the misalignment here.

Yeah. And I mean, I think ultimately if we want a relationship with that other person. And you may not, right? Like the person throwing their groceries, because they don’t want to wear a mask. You don’t need to have a relationship with that person, unless it’s your mother, right? So you get to decide if I want a relationship, then this, this has to be something that we do together. We have to figure out this difficult dynamic between us together.

OK, I can’t wait any longer to talk about your Ted Talk.  What is the gift of conflict??

So there’s actually two things really that conflict gives you. Number one is you get what you want. There’s no way to ask people, you know, requests from people, what you need from them without expecting there to be a bit of conflict, right? We all have different needs and values. And anytime I need something, whether it’s, I need that person to stop yelling at me. Whether it’s that I really want that person’s help with getting something done. There’s likely going to be a little bit of tension and conflict. And so, you know, one of the biggest gifts is that you get to stand up for what you believe or what you want out of a relationship.

The second thing is that we tend to have stronger relationships with people, with whom we can have complex. So  think about, you know, the people that you’ve had the biggest fights with. Oftentimes if we can get through those fights and get to the other side and get to a resolution, we both feel good about. Then we have a stronger relationship as a result. I mean, my daughter knows this intuitively, right? She talks about the friends who she’s really gotten into it with and then says, yeah, we’re BFFS.

So it sounds like conflict then isn’t this thing to be avoided at all costs. It’s kind of like, it’s more like the toll you pay on the road to the good stuff.

Exactly. And it is in some ways the good stuff, right? The best relationships, aren’t the ones where you never have conflict. Where you’re constantly skirting each other’s needs or desires, right? It’s  those relationships where we can say, this is what I want. This is what I need. This is what I believe, what do you want need and believe and how, how can we make both those things happen?

And this is the perfect segue into my next question, which is, how do you think learning how to manage conflict helps us grow into better people? 

Well, I think most importantly, it helps us have better relationships. And the depth of relationship is not determined by how little difficulty there is in that relationship. The depth is how deep can you go into what both people want? And still both people feel that the relationship is a positive one. And so it definitely helps us develop stronger friendships relationships with our family.

It even helps us develop better relationships with strangers. You know, we have lots of conflict, but, you know, I can think about a time I was driving down the street here and, you know, someone was trying to pass in front of me, walking and, and I sort of gave them a look cause I felt like they were doing it in an unlawful way. And then he yelled at me. And that could have really ruined my whole day. But if I know how to manage conflict, if I know how to not only vantage the interaction, but my reaction to it, which is a key part of it, then I’m going to just be more comfortable in my own skin and be more comfortable interacting with other people.

What do you wish everyone knew about dealing with difficult people? 

Well, this might sound a little obvious, but I think we forget it quite often. Which is that one of the biggest lessons when you’re dealing with someone who is just driving you crazy, is that you cannot change that person. The only thing that’s in your control is how you react. And I think we spend a lot of time thinking about how can I get that person to say something differently? See my perspective? Behave differently? When really what we should be thinking about is how do I change my relationship to the way this person is behaving, behaving that sometimes then, you know, encourages the other person to change or changes the dynamic to allow that person to behave differently.

But rarely do we actually have the ability to make someone actually be a different person. And that is one of the hardest lessons. I have to relearn it over and over again, you know, but, it’s the truth. Which is that, you know, the only thing in our control is as ourselves.

Do you have a practical takeaway (or two) that we can take from this episode? To start using the next time we encounter someone who’s pushing our buttons, and we feel ourselves headed toward a conflict? 

Sure. So the very first thing I try to do when I feel that that sort of tension rising. I usually, it’s sort of like a tickle in my chest that starts for me. It’s like, Ooh, I’m not sure this is going to go well. This conversation doesn’t feel like it’s headed in the right place. The first thing I do is try to think about the other person as a rational human being. Now that may sound like I’m being overly generous, right? Like giving that person some empathy, trying to take their perspective. Which is all good. But truthfully, the reason I do that is, it’s a strategic move. Because by putting myself in that other person’s shoes, I’m getting some insight on what they actually want from the situation. That’s going to help me then dig into the situation with them, but hopefully resolve it.

Also. It helps me get out of the mindset of anger, frustration, you know, being upset. Um, because if you’re stuck in that story, you’re telling yourself. Which is this person is a jerk and they are out to get me or this person’s totally irrational.  Like, there’s nowhere to go from there. And so I think  it’s really helpful if you can, just for a moment say, okay, let’s assume this other person is rational, thoughtful, caring. Okay. What would that, what would that say about the situation? How would that dictate how I’m gonna react.

So that’s  the first thing that I try to do. Which is just think about the other person. And I think that sometimes even just helps sort of loosen up this situation a little bit. And my view on the situation is that there’s more space for me to make a decision about how to react.

The other practical takeaway, I would say is that when, so much of why it’s challenging to deal with difficult people is because we go into amygdala hijack. Which you may have talked about on the show before, which is that, you know, that feeling where we feel threatened or attacked. And so we go into the stress response. Where we lose access to our prefrontal cortex and we’re in that fight or flight mode. And that is not a useful place to be obviously to make a rational, thoughtful choice about how to react.

So  what’s helpful to understand though about that reaction is when we go into that amygdala hijack, we tend to have one of two types of responses. We tend to be the kind of person who avoids and shuts down when we’re in that moment. Or we tend to be someone who attacks and sort of leans in what I call seekers. So you will be, tend to be avoiders or seekers.

Now, of course, we might react differently in different situations, but knowing what your default response is, is a great place to work. When you know what your default response is, you can then notice, okay, I’m in that fight or flight mode. That’s why I’m trying to shut down. That’s why I’m trying to lean in and you can start to restore access to your prefrontal cortex so that you can make a more rational decision about how to handle the circumstance.

I love that. So helpful. Thank you. So for folks who want to connect with you and learn more about what you talk about, where can they find you?

So my website is probably the best place which is I’m also on Twitter, same handle. And you can find any of my writing by just searching for my name.

Daily Tiny Assignment

I love Amy at the end, there was saying that it’s really helpful to figure out what your habitual response to dealing with a difficult person is so that you can recognize that it’s happening and thinking about what you’re going to do to pull yourself out of it. By restoring yourself back to a less stressed state.

So your tiny assignment is to think about what do I typically do when the difficult person in my life really starts pushing my buttons. If you can jot down a few notes about it, Amy said she felt a tickle in her chest. I sort of feel like the top of my head is going to fall off. And knowing whatever it is that happens for you is going to help you recognize it sooner. It’s going to help you remember to take a deep breath or take a walk outside or excuse yourself from the situation so that when you come back to dealing with them. You’ll be a little more responsive and a little bit less reactive


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