I just heard the news that my colleague, Melissa Chambers, and I will be presenting at the eLearning Guild Online Forum in April. The topic of this particular forum is “Turning Learning Challenges into Successes.” We’re thrilled to be included!

As I was sharing the news this week, everyone had a story to tell. There seemed to be three types of stories: 1) the “OMG wait until you hear about how BAD this was!” story, in which the teller was simply entertaining me with the ridiculousness of the situation, 2) the “Oh it was HORRIBLE. It was the worst thing EVER” story, in which the teller seemed to be in competition for the worst project of all time and therefore winning all of my sympathy and pity, and 3) the “It was bad at first—really bad—but it was amazing how well everything turned out” story, in which the teller shared not only the details of how things went wrong, but the pride they felt in taking steps to course correct and end the project with great success.

It’s that last set of stories that is the focus of the ELG forum and the goal of our presentation will be to help attendees turn situations that could become stories of failure (whether funny or just plain sad) into stories of pride and satisfaction.

Yesterday, I was talking to another colleague about the topic, and I found myself using the word “conflict.” I had to stop and think about that for a minute. Up until that point, we’d been focusing on our role as a strategic partner with our clients and that it’s the trust we build together that allows us to navigate tough situations. And that’s very true. Trust is critical. But every story I heard about turning potential failure into success shared one common theme—they had embraced conflict. The key players didn’t just run and hide; they faced the issues head on and believed that conflict, if handled well, can serve a very valuable purpose.

Conflict has a bad reputation. Especially here in the Midwest, many people live in fear of conflict. They fear the risks, the tension, that it won’t end well, and in the general “yuckiness” of it all. Sometimes that fear is enough to prevent them from even admitting that there’s an issue. The problem with that though, is if no one knows there’s an issue, it becomes impossible to fix it or, at the very least, learn from it.

A few years ago, I went to a malt shop with a couple friends. We all ordered different varieties of what was called a “concrete” malt. One ordered caramel, the other peanut butter (yuck!), and I ordered my favorite, chocolate banana. The first malt to arrive was the caramel, but in addition to the caramel, it had chocolate and pecans in it (a.k.a. a “Turtle” malt), which my friend hadn’t ordered. She looked at it, complained to the rest of us, then shrugged her shoulders and began eating.

The peanut butter was the next up—which also arrived mixed with caramel, chocolate and pecans. After a quick “What the?!” he decided the malt was “not bad” and kept eating. Finally, my malt came out. It was indeed chocolate and banana but, like it others, it also had caramel and pecans. Would it have tasted terrible? No. But it wasn’t what I ordered, nor was it what I wanted.

Embracing the possible conflict—Would it cause a scene? Would they spit in my replacement malt?—I went up to the counter and calmly explained the situation to the staff. It was tense at first, but it turned out that the person that took our orders was new and the only button she knew to press to get a “concrete” malt was the “Turtle Concrete Malt” button. After the initial confusion was resolved, I got apologies as well as thank yous from both the manager and staff because my bringing things to their attention helped further that employee’s training (I still think about how many people would’ve had their malts turtle-ized if I hadn’t said something). And, of course, I got a new malt that I thoroughly enjoyed. In the end, I left the malt shop satisfied, even pleased, with my experience. I had been inconvenienced yes, but in the end I got exactly what I ordered and I wasn’t made to feel like the bad guy for asking for it.

That’s exactly what we ask of our client partners as we work together—that they trust us enough to feel safe in telling us when they are dissatisfied. And, likewise, it’s our responsibility is to point out issues or suggest different options to our clients based on our expertise and experience, even if there’s a chance they won’t agree. Hopefully a disagreement won’t lead to a full-blown conflict, but I’ve witnessed where even the worst conflict ended with a tremendously successful project and all the players involved giving hugs of appreciation at the end.

As your considering whether or not conflict is necessary in your project, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Pick your battles—Conflict for conflict’s sake isn’t going to help anyone. If you are going to take the risks associated with conflict, make sure the outcome will have a significant, positive, impact on the work.
  2. Treat the other party with respect—Most likely the opposing party had a reason for their decisions and actions that lead to the conflict. Give them credit where credit is due and avoid anything that could remotely resemble blame.
  3. Assume good intent—Remember that ultimately you’re on the same side. You both want the project to be a success. Make it clear that your goal in working through the conflict is to find that success together.
  4. Be clear—Clearly present your case, what you want, and where you’d be willing to give. There’s no point in keeping secrets. If you want to have trust when conflict resolves, start by putting everything out on the table now.
  5. Trust the process—It may feel yucky going in. It may even feel yucky in the middle and for a while once it ends. But believe that positive things can come from conflict including better decisions, smarter work, and stronger relationships.

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