Stefani Wilkens
Stefani Wilkens | Graphic Designer

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Creative Conflict

In order to give credit where it's due, I'd like to start off with a bit of a disclaimer. This post is a part of a series based on what I learned at the Revolve Conference. The specific talk referenced in this post is Cami Travis-Groves' Suits vs. Creatives: Battleground to Higher Ground. If you have a chance, check out her book Get Out of Your Rut! for advice on how to keep the creativity flowing.


We aren't all going to agree on everything. One look through your Facebook newsfeed should be enough to prove that truth. In life and business, disagreements are inevitable. Everyone comes to the table with different perspectives, values, and experiences. It would follow that opinions will not always be aligned, no matter how cohesive the team. That's why it's often quite handy to have a few conflict-resolution tricks up your sleeve. If you are adequately armed with constructive ways to discuss disagreements, you're more likely to come to a peaceful resolution when your client thinks the logo should be bigger – or whatever creative dispute comes your way.

I find that people fall into three categories when it comes to conflict, and you've probably heard of them before.

There are the fighters – that coworker who will come at you with a barrage of changes that you absolutely must make. The one who responds to any questioning about those changes with fire and fury because they know for an absolute fact that their way of doing things is the ONLY correct way and how dare you question their authority. Yep, they're super fun to deal with.

Then there are the people who fall into the "flight" category – AKA, the ones who run away. Now, they don't literally head for the door, that would be silly. But they disengage from the conversation. They retreat into themselves, often feeling like they've been stripped of their value. They'll stop offering their opinions and appear to accept the other person's critique, all while silently stewing inside...until things inevitable explode, often at inopportune moments.

Lastly, there are those that freeze. These are the people who have no idea how to react when faced with conflict, so they end up doing nothing. You don't often encounter them because they don't tend to stick around for long. These are the people who have one bad day at the office and start sending out resumes. 

These are the three types, and there are strengths and weaknesses to each. Fighters can be great at selling their ideas, but can easily smash through people in their quest to win. Those who tend towards flight are often quite agreeable to work with but often miss the opportunity to contribute in a valuable way. Those who freeze tend to avoid conflict altogether, but they're never around long enough to form good working relationships.

Regardless of your type, the single most sensitive part of any conflict is what's happening inside your own head. When faced with any type of argument, in business or otherwise, we tend to overanalyze the situation and begin an internal dialogue that more often than not, blows things out of proportion. This is how a conversation about pull-quotes can become an epic battle of wills in 0.32 seconds. Controlling our internal dialogue is the single most effective way of preventing conflict from spiraling out of hand. 

But how do we do this?

Well, there are three steps that sound simple, but require both patience and practice to get right:

No. 1 – Look at yourself and how you tend to respond to conflict. What's your automatic response when confronted? Do you shut down, cry, yell, immediately assume the other person is right, run away? Figure out what conflict-response type you belong to. Recognize your tendencies when faced with disagreement. Then realize that these tendencies may be hurting you.

No. 2 – Separate yourself from your work. We've all heard that we shouldn't take things personally, especially when it comes to work. I hate hearing that. As creatives, we're working because we love what we do – it is inherently personal. The key to separating yourself from your work isn't to quit taking things personally – it's to stop seeing your worth in terms of a final deliverable. Instead, seek your worth in the process of creating. By subtly shifting your mindset, you'll be more open to conversations about design changes and less likely to get defensive when there's a difference of opinion. 

No. 3 – Try to understand the other person's point of view. Yes, we've heard this one since elementary school but it really is important. When a disagreement arises, focus on listening. Try your best to hear what the other person is trying to say. As Cami Travis-Groves says, "When voices raise, it's because they aren't being heard." By making a commitment to listening and understanding, we put ourselves in the position to quickly resolve conflict or even avoid it entirely – without running away from the problem.

Now, that's how to deal with conflict on an internal level, but there is still the external side of things that we still have to deal with. Knowing yourself, finding value in the process, and understanding another person's point of view is all important, but it is only part of the conflict-resolution process.

You're eventually going to have to communicate with the other person. Gross, I know. This is the part where most of us struggle. Thankfully, there is a step-by-step process that everyone can use to take conflict, and turn it into collaboration:

  1. Identify the emotion and verbalize it.
    I'm getting frustrated, are you feeling the same?
  2. Restate the issues.
    You want the textbox to be a circle because it will reference the branding. I want it to be a square so that the text will align nicely.
  3. Ask for a solution.
    What is a solution we can both live with?

That third step is the most important. Use the exact wording above! Asking, "What's a solution we can both live with?" allows the other person to come up with a compromise, without feeling like they're losing something. It shows that you care about their opinions and that you see their value. It puts you on the same team, setting you up to collaborate rather than argue. 

That's it! Three steps to successful conflict-resolution.

Seems too good to be true, right? Well, sometimes it is.

99.99% of the time, this process works. However, you'll occasionally find that you're dealing with a toxic person. We all know they exist and sometimes you just can't avoid them. I'm sure we've all known people who would respond to the question in Step 3 with:

Just do it my way.

Yikes! Now, I know we all want to take these people by the shoulders and shake some sense into that dense skull of theirs...but please refrain from doing so. (HR really doesn't react well when that happens.) 

Instead, when confronted with a lousy human, call timeout. Take a step back and center yourself before you're pushed to fight, flight, or freeze. Take a walk outside, go to the bathroom, or ask to pick back up on the phone call later. Check in with yourself and go through the internal questioning described above. Then give it one more shot. 

If that still fails and you're in a corporate/agency environment, bring in someone more senior to help. If this is a freelance scenario, recognize that there's a point at which to cut your losses and make a mental note to not work with that person again.

Do you have any tips or tricks for dealing with conflict? Leave a comment and share your wisdom!