by Tyler Reimschisel, MD
I am reading Kwame Christian’s book How to Have Difficult Conversations about Race. Christian will be on campus in April to give one of Case Western Reserve University’s Power of Diversity lectures, and I wanted to read the book to prepare for discussions related to his visit.
But through my reading, I found Christian offers some approaches to having difficult conversations about race that can also be applied to approaching conflict within a team. To be clear: I am not equating the two types of conversations, nor am I comparing the magnitude of systemic racism with interpersonal or professional conflicts. However, I think some of the approaches he offers to having difficult conversations about race are important to think about in a variety of situations—including for addressing challenges within a team.
For example, Christian encourages us to frame the presence of conflict as “an opportunity for progress” instead of thinking of it as “good” or “bad.” This is helpful advice for framing conflict within a team. Conflict will occur within a team, and the way we approach it will be influenced by how we frame its presence. If we think of it as an opportunity for progress, then the tension, discomfort and unsettled feelings we have when experiencing conflict can be managed better. Christian writes, “…if you see conflict as an opportunity, you’ll be looking for opportunities—which can motivate you to push past your discomfort.” I found this to be very insightful advice for dealing with many types of conflict.
Christian also observes that many people see conflict as combat. But if you frame conflict within a team as a battle to be fought and won then the goal becomes to win, to outwit, to outmaneuver and “…to inflict more damage than you sustain.” Your colleague or teammate becomes an adversary or foe instead of a collaborator in finding opportunities in the conflict.
What types of opportunities can we expect from conflict? Christian provides a list pertinent to conversations about race that I found to be relevant to team conflicts. Christian writes that conflict provides us with the opportunity to:
- Create positive change,
- Connect with and learn about others,
- Learn about ourselves,
- Strengthen and maintain valuable relationships,
- Promote equity,
- Solve problems,
- Avoid undesirable outcomes, and
- Improve our skill, ability, and poise in difficult conversations.
So how do we put this into practice within our teams and in our interactions with others? I have a few suggestions you may find helpful. The next time you begin to encounter a possible conflict within your team or during an interpersonal interaction—just as you begin to sense tension, well before it blossoms into a full-blown confrontation—pause to reflect on the situation. Using a growth mindset, try to frame the conflict as an opportunity instead of combat. Then, in the spirit of deconstructive communication and mutual learning, share how you are framing this with the individuals with whom you are beginning to experience the conflict. This will help to create a shared mental model for how to approach the situation more productively as you work together for progress.
I encourage you to read Christian’s book as it provides many helpful approaches for difficult conversations about race. For even more recommendations on books related to the topics of racism, diversity, inclusion and equity, I recently found this page on OIDEO’s website. I have read many of the books on this list, and they are superb. I am now looking forward to reading those that I have not yet read.
Christian, Kwame. How to Have Difficult Conversations about Race: Practical Tools for Necessary Change in the Workplace and Beyond. BenBella Books, 2022:31-33.
Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
Schwarz, Roger. Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results. Jossey-Bass, 2013.