“In the middle of conflict there is always going to be discomfort and you have to find a way to deal with that. Find a way to be comfortable and sit with that to the extent that you are still able to function within it."
In legal practice there is an element of conflict in everything we do so why not learn to use conflict to your advantage?
In recent years, we have started to see an increased focus on positive workplace cultures that foster employee wellness and happiness. There is no doubt that this is critical for any business however, in the process of trying to create a positive workplace, we have swung the pendulum too far. We now seem to avoid conflict in the workplace at all costs. So why is this a problem and when is conflict a good thing?
When you shy away from conflict, you often end up exacerbating the original issue. We are not talking about the kind of conflict that sees two people locked in a heated discussion that goes around in circles. Conflict need not be aggressive, mean-spirited or harsh. Having an opposing view on an issue and addressing that view through open communication allows you to resolve the issue constructively, rather than bottling it up to the point where it ends up exploding.
In legal practice there is inevitably an element of discomfort and conflict in everything we do – it is the nature of the profession. If you cannot accept some level of discomfort in order to have a healthy discussion with your boss or client about an issue and the best path forward, then you run the risk of doing things that you do not agree with. This will result in a build-up of unhealthy emotions that come from feeling undervalued and resentful towards your workplace and your job.
How can you build the courage to have a healthy discussion about an issue?
Start by having the uncomfortable conversation early and in an honest and constructive (not personal) manner. Listen to the other side. It is important to find out the underlying reason behind the issue from the other person’s perspective. We have all been guilty of making an assumption about someone else’s motivations only to find out the real reason for their discomfort was something entirely different.
Early, open and honest communication when dealing with an issue will see you being part of a constructive discussion on how to resolve things and agree on the best path forward. This will result in a decision you will be happy with, rather than one that leaves you feeling like you got the short end of the stick.
This all sounds easy in theory but habits are hard to break. One of the best ways you can help break the cycle of destructive conflict is to consider mapping out what tensions naturally exist between you, your team and the teams you deal with and find the value in each perspective. Then use this map to start an open conversation about how you can deal with each of these tensions in a constructive manner. This exercise will help to “normalise” conflict and paint a picture of what healthy conflict looks like in your workplace.
Learning to appreciate conflict as a valuable tool and implementing these small steps in a profession that is fraught with conflict and discomfort sets the foundation for a healthy, happy and productive life in law.
For more on dealing with conflict and loss of confidence, tune in to the session by Pierre Johannessen of Johannessen Legal “Criticism and Conflict: overcoming loss of confidence”. Pierre is an Australian litigator, Human Rights activist, journalist and recipient of the ACT Young Australian of the Year award for 2010.