There is an “I” in Conflict


I’m from the Midwest – born, raised, and a “lifer” here. It’s a lovely place to live and work. But for many years I had no idea that there was an actual “culture” in the Midwest. Since then, I’ve come to recognize that the culture includes (as all cultures do) some things that are life-enhancing and some that aren’t.

We’re a kind culture; generous, hospitable, and usually agreeable. We don’t pick fights. In fact, we’ll do anything we can to avoid disagreement: run, hide, avoid, withdraw, or change the subject. As a result, a lot goes unsaid in the groups and teams that are essential to running businesses as well as in the households that populate this area.

When leaders move here from other locales, they may struggle to understand the Midwest Nice (yes, that’s what it’s called) culture. Overly loud, controlling, directive behaviors are shunned in public but whispered about in private because, after all, we’re nice. We don’t want to offend anyone to their face.

Although I’ve exaggerated for the sake of illustration, there is truth in the description of our culture. We swim in our way of reacting, just like we breathe the air around us without noticing. We often avoid conflict, often not knowing that in many situations, we can choose to respond in ways that create better outcomes.

Choosing how you respond to conflict

You might think that the only ways to respond to conflict include:

  • Avoiding it
  • Insisting that you’re right, or
  • Getting everyone to agree

There are other ways to respond to conflict. If we can become aware of disagreement as it arises, we can choose the best way to respond for the circumstances and individuals involved. Making a choice that encourages diversity of thinking and surfacing the “unsaid” in communication can make for improved relationships and better decisions.

As a leader, you must learn to take responsibility to observe disagreements and decide the best method to resolve them. When you recognize and become aware of your choices, you can make a decision about how you want to react to it, if you are willing to:

Slow down and realize that there are differing opinions on the subject at hand that might inform better decisions.

Listen to opposing views. “Pretend listening” – nodding your head while you’re forming your own argument about why other views are wrong – isn’t really listening. You need to shut off the chatter and judgment that is going on and really listen.

Ask questions to dig deeper into the reasoning of those who think differently to help you understand their stance; there may be some good stuff there.

Acknowledge those with divergent views for their contribution to final outcomes. They’ve been essential to making the outcomes better than they would have been without the conflict.

As a leader, you must learn to model your reaction to conflict in order to shape your culture. Consider your natural reaction to conflict, and then make a conscious choice about how to react to those who disagree with you in order to make the best decisions.


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

6 comments on “There is an “I” in Conflict

  1. Hi there, MJ

    This is a terrific post.

    My wife is a Midwesterner and we started off our marriage as business partners in addition to husband and wife. (I’m born and raised in the Northeast). What an eye opener!

    From Day 1, we had conflict over not having conflict. Many years later we are still blissfully married but not without negotiating the bliss–as nicely as possible.

    Frankly, I wish I were inherently as “nice” as she. At the same time, she has a quiet, steady, way of raising and addressing issues that is more effective than mine and from which I have learned a lot.

    Your closing line gets to the heart of the issue: Become aware of your natural reaction and then make conscious, deliberate choices in response. If we become as intentional with our responses to conflict as we do with what toppings to put on our pizza, maybe we can bump up our game when it comes to collaboration, eh?

  2. Hi Steve,

    I love your story – it is absolutely illustrative of the differences in dealing with conflict that I experienced when our corporate HQ moved to New Jersey. I love the idea of choosing responses the same way we choose pizza toppings. It made me stop and think about all the time I put into what goes on my pizza – and how little spent deciding a response to conflict.

    P.S. I think you’re pretty nice, for the record.

  3. Mary Jo,
    Love your post for it touches on something I realized 20 years ago when I first started traveling for my biz — a shared language and country does not mean we have a completely shared culture!

    I never knew there was “Midwest nice” and it was affecting the workplace.

    I could see people were very nice in Midwest yet the conflict averse culture was not apparent.

    Great post to remind everyone that listening and discussing resolve conflict without ruining relationships.

    Very true in customer service as well. Customers all over this country are very different. Here’s a post that compliments yours:

    Do You Inter-Culture Your Customer Service?


  4. Hi Kate, I think as we continue to globalize, there will be a melding of cultures. But for places such as the one I live in, this may take awhile. Amazing what good listening can do, eh? Thanks for stopping over, adding to the conversation, and providing the link!

  5. As always, how you react to situations plays a huge role in whether things will turn out right or get even worse. Thanks for mentioning Midwest Nice–I myself have not been aware of that until now!

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