Conflict

A blog post about “Conflict”? Uh, too scary? Maybe not. I thought there is so much unclear about what conflict is, how we react to it, and how it’s possible to resolve it. There are so many bad examples, so many escalations involving yelling at each other up to violence – in our personal lives, work environments, politics, just everywhere. Also I’ve often been asked, what my consulting or management style is, and I found that it has a lot to do with conflict management. I believe I can’t interact with people without exposing conflict, except if  avoiding  honesty and sacrificing productivity. So, how do I handle it.

First, what is “conflict”? In the Wikipedia article about conflict I find this statement:

“Conflict refers to some form of friction, disagreement, or discord arising within a group when the beliefs or actions of one or more members of the group are either resisted by or unacceptable to one or more members of [the] group.”

Well, fairly simple. At its core, conflict is about different opinion or judgement, and it includes the reaction of “resisted by or unacceptable to”. Seems so common, we should all be very used to it, and dealing with conflict should be something so basic, we’d all be able to master it easily.

It’s not. And the reason it is not, I believe, is the “reaction” to the friction, disagreement or discord. That reaction involves emotion, and unless you’re an ego-centric person with both no hesitation to express emotion and a position or status with no fear from sanction, that’s a very uncomfortable situation. For nearly every person emotions like defiance, anger, rage are difficult to handle. Even worth the deeper emotions like helplessness, powerlessness. The typical mechanism is avoidance. By ignoring or avoiding conflict one can reliably suppress upcoming emotions – at the cost of a fake consensus, with all its negative consequences.

What is very important is the realization that conflict is practically unavoidable. Since every individual has a unique set of skills, expertise and conditioning it’s only natural that for any given topic or question, there’s as many opinions, or at least flavors of opinions, as people involved. Since humans naturally gather in groups of equal interest, conflict does not arise all the time. Yet it is nearly unavoidable it does. And if smart people gather in groups with diverse, unique capabilities, or teams are built from members of different groups – well, conflict is going to happen. It can take a lot of the heat to just look at that fact alone. Conflict isn’t bad, it’s not a sign that stupid people are sharing stupid ideas. It’s natural. Also, looking at the fact people from different groups, different background, skills, etc. are brought together to benefit from each other, and that conflict is part of that setup, can help dealing with it differently.

The one thing I found difficult is that, since a reaction to conflict involves emotion, and that emotion in itself can cause a reaction… we’re in a loop! Ever seen someone getting angry. Did that make you angry, too? That’s the issue I’m talking about. So, easier said than done, but still to mention. One key aspect of successful conflict resolution is to not react to emotion. Actually, it would be to not react to the conflict itself, if that is possible. It’s the simple emotions that prevent conflict resolution, consensus, productivity. The bigger the impact, in a team, an organization etc., the more valuable the efforts to address that issue. Via internal or external coaching, supervision or similar. Via experienced management or moderation of meetings. Or via taking a break, looking at the facts, and gathering again to resume the process. Another option would be to just let all emotions be expressed freely. As long as escalations (e.g. physical violence) can be controlled, that would be a possible way to go, yet it comes at a price (hurt feelings, time) and, due to the nature of it, may not result in the best possible conflict resolution.

The other thing I’ve often seen as the cause of ineffective conflict resolution is ones own importance, aka. the ego. Looking at the simple fact that people with different background, skills and expertise will naturally arrive at different opinion, it is amazing how commonly every single one believes that his or her opinion is the most valuable in the group, and the one that’s got be the group consensus. It’s amazing, and yet so very natural. Since one arrived at the opinion or conclusion based on all the knowledge accumulated it sure looks like the best possible outcome. The simple fact other people are looking at the fact from their perspective, with the same confidence, yet different accumulated knowledge is usually overseen or ignored. Again, looking at the fact, being aware that this is the way the human brain works, and we’re all victims of our ego-centric existence can certainly improve the conflict resolution process.

At the end of the day, successful conflict resolution depends on just a few things. Awareness of the entire process. An understanding of the working of the human brain. A certain level of consciousness of the ego and its working. An understanding of emotions and a maturity in dealing with them. And, last but not least, the willingness to express an opinion, paired with the respect of other opinions in the group, an open mind to listen to them, and a willingness to agree on what seems the best option. And, of course, time.