FORCING THE ISSUE
I've lost count of the number of inflection points in my life where my willingness to engage in constructive conflict has raised me to the next level. Although I wasn't always in control of the circumstances and timing, once put in that situation, I was deliberate in my response to it. I guarantee that moment will inevitably come, because taking risks in business and in life is never without conflict. I repeat, that's a good thing. The conflicts that come up between employer and employees, for example, can produce great outcomes if handled well. There are moments when, in order to resolve a toxic problem, you may even have to force a conflict, like I did during a Season Three episode of Bar Rescue called "Hostile Takeover" in which three bar owners constantly argued with each other about numerous trivialities instead of focusing on the root cause of the bar's business problems.
One partner, Jerry, held a 40 percent interest in the bar. He was also a drinker. The other two partners each held a 30 percent interest. Because they mistakenly believed that Jerry was the majority stakeholder, and because they were so uncomfortable with the idea of addressing Jerry's drinking problem, nothing was getting done and the useless bickering continued. Until I came along. I told the two minority stakeholders that together they were actually majority owners. That gave them power and confidence. It took some doing, but I was able to get them to address Jerry's problem together, escort him out of the bar and the business, and get back to what was important—running a profitable bar. Once they understood their combined majority stake, they were able to harness their power together and resolve the elephant-in-the-room conflict: Jerry and his drinking.
That episode illustrates one of the many positives that constructive conflict can bring to your most important relationships. Doing battle for a worthy or righteous cause can evoke emotional ties we have to those family, friends, and allies with whom we have faced adversity together. Confronting conflict with allies strengthens the bonds of family, friends, and colleagues. By acknowledging those feelings, we're also recognizing that facing conflict gives us the chance to build even stronger relationships. (And Jerry, now sober, has since become a dear friend who reaches out to me every holiday.)
Conversely, unresolved conflict can become so toxic that it destroys relationships. It also stifles growth and forces individuals to retreat from engagement in any worthy pursuit. Consider what it must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts orbiting Earth and living in confined spaces with each other for months on end. Imagine how those tiny annoyances can fester inside a space station where there's no escape from the people whose habits, actions, and insensitivities are driving you crazy.
Cosmonaut Valentine Lebedev didn't have to imagine. In 1982 he lived it for 211 days on Russia's Salyut 7 space station, and wrote about it in his memoir, Diary of a Cosmonaut. It's not as if he could go outside to walk off any tensions or get some air. After a while, the stress became unbearable.
"We don't understand what's going on with us. We silently walk by each other, feeling offended. We have to find some way to make things better."
The cosmonaut's space stint with fellow traveler Alexander "Tolia" Ivanchenkov, along with the various scientists, doctors, engineers, and backup cosmonauts who flew to the station for shorter stints, consisted of maintaining sanity amid the monotony, proximity, and discomforts of living 140 miles above the Earth without family, fresh air, the comforts of home, and, well, gravity. Some diary entries detail the stress of equipment failures and the hours spent in tense silence trying to make repairs. Inside a space not much bigger than a mobile home, strewn with cables, papers, and various space station debris that was not nailed down, they lived and toiled, aware that everything they did, no matter how routine it might have seemed on Earth, from planting cucumber seeds in their space garden to cleaning out the human waste to keep their plumbing system functioning, necessitated meticulous attention to detail. Sometimes the level of irritation with the circumstances, and each other, could be so high that the two men would not utter a word to each other for days at a time.
"And what's the problem?" Lebedev asks himself on day 115 of orbiting space. "Am I prejudiced against my crewman, or am I just that kind of person? No, it's just a fact of life which we are always afraid to admit to without sweetening, smoothing the sharp edges, assuming that someone might misunderstand us or misinterpret us." Lebedev breaks down his difficult and complicated relationship with Ivanchenkov, which veers between affection and exasperation.
"We cosmonauts prepare and train ourselves inside the same team for years. It's tiring. We have to find enough strength within ourselves (which isn't so easy) to build open and trusting relationships within the team, form a consensus on our work, and prepare for the difficulties of flight. The most important thing in the relationship between Tolia and me is the acceptance and recognition of the strong and weak points in each other's personalities. On top of that we mustn't forget to spare each other's vanity, protect each other and actually be friends instead of pretending. "
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
1. The Case for Conflict
2. The Fight In My Head
3. Pick Your Battles
4. The Rules of Engagement
5. Do Your Homework
6. To Yell or Not to Yell
7. Listen to Win
8. Meet Me on The Corner
9. Be the Bridge
10. Prepare for the Long Haul
Epilogue: The Evolution Of A Conflict Champion