“When we dare to break the silence, or dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.” Margaret Heffernan, Dare to Disagree, TED Talk
I’m a little leery when I see relationships or systems, whether workplace, personal or familial, where there aren’t moments of conflict.
I’ve done many surveys in my consulting practice that on paper demonstrate contented, conflict-free work environments. The one-on-one interviews quickly counter the myth of collective cheer and instead detail the fears of open expression.
After all, a driving human force is the need for self-expression. As we go about our lives, pursuing our desires, dreams, shaping our futures, expressing ourselves – we will inevitably encounter people who see things differently or believe that we have incompatible needs.
In other words, conflict is inherent in the social dynamics of living. The challenge of conflict lies in how we choose to respond to it. Any successful response to using the energy of conflict to advance understanding and growth depends on the awareness and skills we bring to it.
We Perceive Conflict as we Define it
In my experience, I’ve noticed three key “strategies” most people use to deal with conflict – avoidance, defense and confrontation. Another common habit I see is that the search for solutions is typically on the outside – in other words, the focus is on the “other” in the conflict. The common starting point is rarely looking inward; which should be, in my opinion – the starting point.
A major part of what colors our perception of any conflict is how we define it. Past experience and conditioning plays a major role in shaping those perceptions. We carry the legacy of past thinking into present day ideas of what is and what should be – expressed as beliefs and demonstrated in behavior. So it is with the conflict.
Dictionary definitions do little to illuminate the meaning of conflict. According to Webster’s conflict is: “ A fight, battle, competition or opposing action of incompatibles; antagonistic; mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or external or internal demands.”
These definitions, undoubtedly shaped by comparisons to war and battle and analogies to aggression and competition continue to shape our primary narrative of conflict. Differences and disagreements, whether prosaic or passionate, tend to be conflated with language completely inappropriate to most situations.
My preferred “definition” of conflict comes from Eric Van Slyke, author of Listening to Conflict. “Conflict says Van Slyke, is the perceived loss of power between interdependent parties who believe that they have incompatible needs, goals, desires, etc.”
In light of the latest neuroscience the common postures of avoidance, attack and defense make sense when we understand the brain is always monitoring the environment to ward off threat or to seek rewards. This information adds another layer to our understanding of our default reactions to anything we perceive as a “threat.” Only by increasing our literacy of emotional needs and cognitive skills can we move from reactivity to measured response.
It is suggested that the first writings on conflict were credited to Plato and Aristotle, who touted the elimination of conflict. Order was the sign of the good life – disorder the sign of the bad. For centuries, the prevailing thinking was that conflict should be eliminated. In the 1600s, political theorists Hobbes and Locke believed that order was essential for a proper society and that if any conflict should occur, the government should control it.
Much of that thinking has been transmuted into a meme that conflict is a waste of time, negative, adversarial, to be avoided and a “problem” that always needs to be resolved. Some critics believe that the extreme end of today’s “positivity” movement discourages disagreement and dissent. But beneath the rationales we devise, aversion to conflict is often an attempt to maintain psychological safety.
Moving Beyond Our Fear of Conflict
Only by confronting the limitations set by our beliefs about conflict can we begin to resolve conflict in new ways. Because each situation has as many “objective” realities as there are parties in a conflict, managing and responding to conflict effectively does not depend on identifying the “objective” reality or truths in a conflict.
The most important skill we bring to successful conflict management is awareness of our emotional states and thinking processes that shape them. Our emotional states are always the “elephant in the room” in a conflict situation. Yet, most attempts at resolving conflict focus on problem solving, with little, if any, attention given to what people are feeling or the needs underlying their positions.
Conflicts often escalate when individuals avoid expressing the feelings that arise due to differences. The root of most conflict is often born out of poor communication, internal narratives or the inability to understand or manage one’s emotions.
A common problem in dealing effectively with conflict is to understand its source. Understanding the source of a conflict influences our feelings and the manner in which we approach a conflict situation. Before we “solve” any conflict we have to know where to look.
Here are a few ways of thinking about the types and sources of conflict.
- Everyone has some form of internal conflict. It is generated by unresolved, often competing personal emotions, desires, beliefs, and needs. It is not necessarily driven by external events.
- Interpersonal conflict –commonly over-identified as the root source of most conflicts involves specific feelings about others. Internal conflicts can give rise to, or escalate, interpersonal conflict. Style, behavioral and personality differences all contribute to interpersonal conflicts, as well as issues about how things should be done.
- Structural conflicts are often overlooked when trying to understand how and why conflicts arise, especially those of a persistent nature. Structural conflicts are influenced by systems. They can stem from rules (written and unwritten), regulations, policies, norms and customs. These types of conflicts are often misdiagnosed as interpersonal in nature when analyzing a problem or event.
When we are able to identify the source and type of a conflict – at the very least as a navigational tool for how we think, spend energy and direct our actions, we’re see more clearly what is in our control and what is not. All of us labor to solve problems that we have absolutely no control over.
As organizations, cultures and societies deal with greater complexities, the issues people face will only become more challenging. Every organizational leader needs to commit to developing their own – and every employees’ emotional literacy and conflict response skills.
With the world on our plate, we can no longer use the same old tired ineffective strategies to manage our differences and diversities. The potential for conflict, managed wisely, to enrich our personal lives and organizations is enormous.
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George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants