Why We Need More Conflict, Not Less, in Relationships, Work, and Online

In this post: The most surprising benefits of conflict I learned from Ian Leslie’s book, Conflicted, that will hopefully get you to agree we should disagree more often—at work, in romantic relationships, and even online.


To tackle society’s problems with inequality, climate change, divorce, and, well, everything, we don’t need less conflict. We need more of it.

That’s what Ian Leslie argues in his book, Conflicted.

Because if we don’t sharpen our conflict resolution skills and toughen each other up doing so, outrage will continue to take its place, ironically making the world a more disagreeable place to live in.

Do you agree?

If not, good.

And maybe some of these benefits of conflict will encourage you to keep it up.

✓ Conflict creates the best ideas.

When conflict is poorly managed, you generally get one of these four undesirable outcomes:

  1. One side obliterates the other. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, like squatting a mosquito before it bites you. But what if you’re the mosquito? Or what the thing you’re swatting away isn’t a mosquito’s stinger but, say, the syringe of a vaccine?
  2. You put your differences aside. But you can only sweep so many things under the rug before people start tripping over it.
  3. Compromise. But with compromise, both sides are slightly worse off than they started.
  4. Each side sets itself more firmly on their side. More on this in the following benefit of conflict.

But when done right, you get a fifth outcome that makes conflict worth it:

  1. Creativity. You and your adversaries put your differences to work to come up with new ideas or solutions that are better than either side had before.

✓ Conflict makes the hive smarter.

We humans are wired to gobble up evidence that backs what we want to believe and gag on inconvenient truths. This confirmation bias turns us individuals into self-justifying, ego-centric, close-minded, and deluded echo-chamber dwellers.

And if you think you’re immune, that’s a sign you’re worse than most.

But if confirmation bias is so bad, why have we evolved to do it?

Because while it might hurt you, it’s good for the hive of humanity.

Here’s why:

The stronger both sides of a conflict stick to their guns, the harder they’ll dig for arguments in their favor. And while neither side is ever likely to budge in this mental tug-of-war, less biased onlookers can benefit by using the different perspectives of the hardheaded arguments to come up with something closer to the truth.

So as Leslie writes in the book,

“Confirmation bias isn’t something to eliminate; it’s something to harness.”

How?

Maybe, before making decisions, you could assign a team member to play the role of devil’s advocate?

It’s a good idea in theory, but according to studies Leslie shares, it doesn’t work in practice.

To harness confirmation bias’ power, it has to be authentic. Because others are most inclined to listen when someone has the guts to truly put their reputation on the line by taking the other side. An authentic devil’s advocate may come away looking like an idiot, but they may also help make everyone slightly smarter as a whole.

✓ Conflict creates conversation.

Conflict-free conversations aren’t really conversations. They’re verbal massage circles that devolve into drivel about babies and the weather because there are only so many ways to say, “I agree.”

But, when you don’t see eye-to-eye, things get spicy.

So next time you find yourself stuck with someone as dull as the DC airport, try asking them, “What do you suspect we disagree about?”

✓ Conflict fixes broken models.

Early on in relationships, we pay close attention to each others’ words and behaviors. Every piece of information we gather is like a Lego block that we piece together to create mental models of one another.

But we’re lazy. So once our models are good enough, we think we “know” our employee/co-worker/spouse/teammate and stop adding new blocks or replacing ill-fitting ones.

As a result, the person who meets Sandy the day his dog died can end up with a completely different model of him than someone who met Sandy the evening he got a promotion.

This is where conflict can help. The way someone responds to arguments and acrimonious situations can tell you:

  • How cooperative and open-minded they are.
  • To what extent they can be trusted.
  • What they care about.
  • Whether all that meditation they brag about practicing is actually doing them any good.

And the emotional heat of conflict makes it easier to break down the big blocks you made from early impressions into smaller, more nuanced pieces.

Yes, there’s a risk conflict ruins your relationship. But the upside is this:

The best relationships are the ones where people have the most accurate models of each other.

For this reason, Leslie points out in his book, couples prone to angry arguments about non-trivial problems are more likely to stay together.

✓ Conflict combats passive aggression.

We all need to do our part to fight passive aggression. And you do so by doing the opposite: overtly arguing, disagreeing, and challenging one other.

Be active-aggressive.

✓ Conflict reduces anxiety.

What’s a worse punishment:

  1. Getting a spanking for eating your sister’s cookie?
  2. Being told that at some point in the next month, when you least expect it, you’ll get spanked for eating your sister’s cookie?

Obviously, B’s worse. Until you get what’s coming to you, you’ll have a constant sense of anxiety in the back of your head. Better to take A, get it over with, and move on.

Which is what a culture of open conflict encourages.

Instead of worrying that you’re being judged by others, you know what they really think of you. The spanks still hurt, but they also allow you to learn your lesson and adapt faster and with less anxiety.

✓ Conflict can be fun.

In our culture, we use war terminology to describe disagreement. We battle, fire blows, defend, and defeat.

No wonder we get hostile. And no wonder things usually explode in our faces when we’re careless in our conflicts.

That’s no fun.

But what if, instead, we follow the advice of the authors of Metaphors to Live By and reframe disagreement as a dance?

Instead of having winners and losers, conflict becomes part of an infinite game where we all work together to get closer to the truth. And we have a good time doing so.

Can we agree to disagree more often?

Before picking up Conflicted, I already agreed with Leslie’s thesis that we need more conflict. Even so, he managed to convince me more than ever. (Confirmation bias?)

Rather than avoid conflict, we should seek it out everywhere—at work, in our relationships, and online.

Conflict is a complicated and even dangerous dance, but if we keep improving through practice, the benefits will outweigh the downsides. It will make us smarter, less divided, and more innovative. And it’ll be fun.

I hope by now you agree with Leslie and me, too.

…Or maybe I hope you disagree.

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