Reframing the Perception of Conflict

Reframing the Perception of Conflict 150 150 Laura Sicola


At some point or other, we’ve all taken leadership style or personality “tests,” whether the DISC assessment, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or one of myriad others on the market. But one scale I haven’t seen explicitly identified on any commercially available tools is how people perceive conflict.


Notice I did not say how they handle conflict. In my experience, a critical factor is whether and how people perceive conflict in the first place, as that is the catalyst that triggers the response. Once you start to see how differently people experience the concept of “conflict,” it becomes remarkably clear why they engage in it or avoid it the way that they do, and how you need to handle a situation in order to get the results you want in a way that is both collaborative and effective.


First, think about conflict not as a yes-or-no issue, but on a gray scale, with “peace” and “war” at the opposite extremes, separated by a wide range of degrees of intensity, which might look something like this:

Because of the range of degrees of this scale, the issue becomes one of personal tolerance, kind of like your personal tolerance for spicy food. These different degrees of conversational intensity, such as disagreement, debate and fight, always exist. At that point, the question then becomes at what point you start to feel a sense of genuine anxiety, and when that anxiety reaches a level that is intolerable, which makes you want (or need) to end the conversation – whether through fight or flight.


For people who tend to have a lower tolerance for conflict-related anxiety, they may view the scale like this:


From their perspective, they can only have a conversation comfortably as long as they know that they will not have to discuss anything that will make either or both people unhappy, because unhappiness reflects conflict, and conflict triggers anxiety, which is not tolerable. This is why people who are highly conflict-averse may tend to avoid engaging in some important conversations. Peace/Agreement Discussion Disagreement Debate Argument Fight Battle War Tolerable Anxiety Intolerable Anxiety Peace/Agreement Discussion Disagreement Debate Argument Fight Battle War 2 Ironically, it is often through the efforts and extents people go through in attempt to avoid conflict that they end up making a bad situation worse, as problems are allowed to fester


On the other hand, people who have a higher tolerance for conflict-based anxiety may view the scale more like this:

To these people, a good intellectual debate is just that: a debate, to explore the differences in ideas, whether for the purposes of trying to learn from each other, or to persuade the other person to change their view. As long as the discourse doesn’t get personal, most commentary is fair game.


Often people with much higher tolerance conflate being blunt with being efficient. Needless to say, this is also not a particularly good way to lead, if your goal is to build loyal and effective teams and customer relationships.


I strongly encourage you to share the models with your team and have an open discussion to compare where people identify their own tolerance levels. Once you understand how you perceive conflict and at what point that conflict puts you in a state of intolerable anxiety, especially relative to someone else’s tolerance, you’ll be better able to understand why your response to conflict defaults a certain way. Only then will it be possible to discover what you need to do to promote open discussion in a way that creates trust, and increases productivity and overall success.


Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others? If so, contact me at or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!