Take a moment and think about how you were raised to behave during moments of conflict. When you had an argument with the people who raised you, what happened? Did those arguments look different or similar to the way conflict unfolded in your friendships as a young person?

You’re probably remembering a wide continuum of conflicts—some with better outcomes than others. Inherited conflict tools can range from deeply avoidant (usually expressed in silent treatment or love withdrawal) to highly competitive (yelling is usually a feature of this model).

Of course, there are also the moments you were able to be seen for your experience, talk through the issue, and move through that conflict to a deeper, more meaningful relationship on the other side. When this occurred, we at True North EDI like to ask, what were the conditions that made that healthy conflict possible?

Relationships and Responsibility

I often think about conflict in terms of establishing a healthy connection between relationship and responsibility. This is easily seen in terms of parents and children, for example. Parents who want a relationship with their children without being responsible for them are often disappointed with the results, especially as those children grow into adults. Similarly, if I want the benefits of “good relationships” with my friends or the people I work with, but I’m unwilling to recognize my part in being responsible for those relationships, especially during difficult moments, I’ll likely be unhappy with the results.

This was glaring to me in a story my friend shared recently over coffee. She works for a women-owned, boutique recruiting firm. The firm has a highly specialized client base and works with a small staff of about 12 employees. The CEO put forth great effort to build relationships with the team: staff retreats in Napa and San Francisco, thoughtful, personalized gifts for holidays and birthdays, and group “shout outs” at every meeting were just a few of the ways she tried to create connections.

However, when revenue plummeted in the last year, relationships frayed. The CEO frequently showed up on calls stressed and irritated, often placing blame for the low numbers on team members. Employees were asked to learn a handful of new operating systems and procedures while still carrying their workload. When two employees were laid off, their clients were distributed to other recruiters with no explanation for how they would be accommodated to manage the increase in work. Efforts by team members to discuss these decisions were met with defensiveness and evasion.

The point is, emphasizing the importance of relationships without taking responsibility for our part in maintaining those relationships through challenging moments actually results in less trust than if no effort was made to create that community in the first place.

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