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Want Creative Conflict? Find Thought Partners Who Disagree

I had a great idea for a new workshop. My colleague disagreed. I disliked his feedback and dismissed it.. He just didn't get it!
Later, I revisited what he said and decided to call back and ask for specifics. Why didn't he think people would want to attend? What would he change to make it more inviting and useful? I asked him to push back more and used the feedback to create a compelling program.

In her TED Talk, Dare to Disagree, on creative conflict, author and CEO Margaret Heffernan offers a view of conflict so contrary to the typical TV images, Facebook rage, and Twitter rants of positional confrontation that it is difficult to believe, unless you've tried it. She tells the story of Alice Stewart, a British scientist in the 1950s, who theorized that x-rays of pregnant women proved damaging to the fetus. But to be sure, she invited a colleague--statistician George Kneale--to poke holes in her theory; to, in fact, disprove it. She wanted to make sure she hadn't missed anything.

Creative Conflict

Heffernan goes on to suggest that we need more leaders who can see the creativity inherent in conflict. Like aikido on the mat, these leaders view conflict not as attack but as valuable energy needed to solve the world's problems, rather than exacerbate them. Alice Stewart and George Kneale saw their process not as conflict but as "thinking."
I encourage you to watch the whole of Margaret Heffernan's 13-minute TED Talk. She offers so much insight in such a short span of time. Here are a few tidbits to tantalize:

  • We not only need these skills, we have to teach these skills if we want thinking organizations and thinking societies.
  • When we dare to disagree we allow people to do their best thinking.
  • Great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.
Watching Heffernan's TED Talk, wonderful as it is, is not enough. We, all of us, must go out and get creative with conflict.

  • Seek out people with different ways of thinking, life style, and disciplines.
  • Look for partners who aren't "echo chambers."
  • When you find yourself in conflict, notice the tendency to dismiss the other viewpoint, to judge it as ignorant, wrong-headed, ill-informed, or crazy.
  • Instead, invite the energy and get creative. Ask for specifics. Invite them to say more. And begin to turn conflict into collaboration, conversation, and relationship-building dialogue.
  • Be willing to change your mind.
When you do these things, you're choosing to be purposeful about conflict. Whether you invite conflict intentionally as a creative "thinking" process or it just happens to find you, either way, what you do next is your choice.

About the Author: Judy Ringer is the author of Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict < > from which this excerpt is taken and the award-winning e-zine, Ki Moments, containing stories and practices on turning life's challenges into life teachers. Judy is a black belt in aikido and nationally known presenter, specializing in unique workshops on conflict, communication, and creating a positive work environment. She is the founder of Power & Presence Training and chief instructor of Portsmouth Aikido, Portsmouth, NH, USA. To learn more, visit