At work and in collaborative projects, conflict is inevitable. Whether it's over an important social issue, the direction of a professional project, or simply what to eat for lunch, groups of people working together are bound to disagree.
Conflict cannot be avoided — but it can be made worse. When people attack each other personally, when they refuse to consider others' viewpoints, when they seek to undermine those with whom they disagree, or worst, when they become violent, they block the path to mutual understanding and a shared solution.
When faced with a major conflict, people tend toward extremes: They either become angry and unwilling to compromise, or they disengage and get complacent.
Some people live entirely at one end or the other of this spectrum. They're either full of rage and unable to bend, or they simply check out and ignore the issue. Many people, though, swing quickly between the two extremes. They exhaust themselves with anger, and then retreat into numbness, believing that nothing can change.
Among groups of people who are supposed to be working together, both hostility and apathy are disastrous. Constructive dialogue can provide the middle ground and the road ahead.
We believe that while constructive dialogue is a valuable skill for both formal and informal situations, it's important to set aside specific time for dialogue. That allows organizers to establish specific rules and to make sure everyone involved is safe and empowered to share their opinions.
It's also important to have ground rules and dedicated time when offering feedback on other people's work or ideas. Feedback needs to be honest, but it can also be very personal. The guidelines for Constructive Dialogue, shared in our eBook, originated as rules of critique, inspired by the structure of peer critiques in art school.
Here are some reasons that it's valuable to set aside time and space for dialogue:
It allows groups to establish trust.
Sharing opinions that are tied to your personal or professional identity can be terrifying. Inviting people to offer their opinions on issues that affect you is even scarier. To open yourself up, you have to trust that people are being honest and thoughtful with what they say, and that they want to succeed and to find common ground.
Having dedicated time for dialogue helps establish that crucial trust, as participants get to know one another as people. In a controlled setting, a facilitator can remind everyone to remain respectful and keep the conversation productive.
When it comes to giving and receiving feedback in the workplace or on a collaborative project, designated space for dialogue honors each person's time, effort, and creativity. The environment is one of both challenge and support, as each participant empathizes with the person sharing their ideas, while also challenging them to keep improving.
Rules like "what happens in this room stays in this room" help people feel safe and trusting enough to invite the critique they need.
It helps deter personal attacks.
When people are discussing complex issues that affect their lives, emotions run high and fast. A quick glance at most Internet comments sections confirms how nasty attacks can get when people aren't looking each other in the eye or held to any standards of conduct. Hosting tough conversations in a controlled environment with specific guidelines encourages people to remain respectful and focused.
This applies in professional settings as well: Having someone criticize your work or ideas to your face can feel like an attack, too. People identify strongly with their jobs and the work that they do, so it's hard not to take questions and suggested changes personally. When the context for a critique is established as specific to the project at hand, that's a reminder to everyone involved that the feedback is not meant to be personal. Constructive criticism also helps each individual gain perspective for themselves, and take a step back from their own work.
It helps close the loop: not just what is and isn't working, but where to go next.
When feedback is offered informally, it tends to be quick, observational, and limited, describing the idea or project as it exists already. Especially when everyone's on a tight schedule, advice might come with little direction on how to implement it.
Having focused time for critique helps you go beyond the surface, allowing for a thorough discussion of why something works or why it needs improvement. Each person can explain what they're trying to achieve, and those giving feedback can offer suggestions, explain their opinions, and debate alternatives. The result is a clearer action plan for the next phase of the project.
Now that you're ready to make time for constructive dialogue, read the full list of nine guidelines for Constructive Dialogue in our eBook!