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Conflict 101 – What You Need to Know

Conflict 101 – What You Need to Know

Think back, for just a moment, to the last time you found yourself embroiled in conflict. Can you still feel the physical sensations? Are the anger and rage still there, simmering? Much of the time, those feelings are just the surface. Here is your opportunity to look a little deeper.

Sometimes we hear talk of conflict being about limited resources. But, people who know how to work together can usually find ways to distribute their resources without engaging in destructive conflict. In my mind, conflict is best defined as a struggle between two or more forces. Failing to manage your struggles can almost guarantee failure – in both our personal and professional lives.

Conflict can be productive when you view your conflicts as opportunities to expand your perspective and investigate new options. On the other hand, conflict can be destructive if you engage in mean-spirited behaviors aimed at fulfilling an individual agenda or discrediting the other party, who is now designated as “the enemy.”

This column looks at two concepts that you can use to understand your own conflicts.

Dissed – The Bottom Line. Let’s go back, look at your last conflict and try to make some sense of it. Typically, under the anger, you will find a deeper feeling. Can you identify with feeling dismissed, discounted, disenfranchised or otherwise disrespected? Different “dis” words will fit different scenarios. But the bottom line is, under almost every human conflict, one or both sides feel that they have been duped.

Often when arguing over a sum of money one or both of the parties may confide “it’s not really about the money – it’s the principle.” This is a tip-off that the conflict is actually about feeling “dissed.” The dollar amount becomes a metaphor, representing how much we value one another.

When money is not an issue the theory still applies. Recently, at a chamber meeting one of my clients, Gwen, a powerful business leader, was not recognized during the Mayor’s opening remarks. Gwen’s internal reaction was the same as if the mayor had consciously and verbally announced, “Gwen is just not that important around here.” Luckily, Gwen chose not to act on the feelings. Instead, she quietly stewed and used positive self-talk as the meeting went on. Gwen decided that this was probably just an oversight and not an instance where she wanted to engage and open up a dialogue. Gwen has learned that occasionally – especially with an isolated incident – avoidance is the best conflict management strategy.

Often, in the news, conflicts erupt and make headlines. Recent stories include Alec Baldwin’s raging voice mail message and the Professor Gates-Officer Crowley Cambridge drama. We will never really understand the incidents that triggered these episodes. However, it seems likely that these occurrences were the last straw in a line of experiences that left someone feeling displaced, discounted and disenfranchised.

The Fairy Tale Story of Conflict. In his book The Joy of Conflict Resolution, Gary Harper provides a somewhat different perspective for understanding our conflicts. The book begins with a fairy tale, complete with an evil dragon, a beautiful princess, and the noble prince who saves her. Harper proposes that the fairy tales of our youth play a crucial role in the conflicts we face as adults. But, fairy tales promote simplistic, black-and-white conflicts with larger-than-life characters. Unfortunately, the “drama triangle” of victim, hero and villain can become a psychological barrier to resolving our real-life conflicts. When we play the victim – under attack, powerless, inclined to withdraw and willing to accept sympathy – we also absolve ourselves of responsibility. After all, we are innocent and the conflict is not our fault. Rather than meeting the situation head-on, we justify inaction by telling ourselves that the other person is the one who needs to change. Sometimes, we shift into hero mode to protect ourselves, defend our interests, and even the score. It’s a role full of courage, selflessness, and the dramatic seeking of justice. Of course, the darker side is that we can become self-righteous, manipulative and controlling – which inevitably heightens the conflict. We have no difficulty determining the villain when we find ourselves in conflict. However, ironically, the villain typically views him or herself as the victim in the conflict, and like us, conjures up his/her hero to fight back.

The bottom line is, instead of playing a hero-villain/cops and robbers scenario in your head, the key to resolving your conflicts is to expand your perspective. Consider that the person on the other side may also be feeling disrespected or under attack. When you can become partners and patiently seek out a creative resolution to the conflict, you both win. This doesn’t necessarily mean splitting the difference. It means sharing stories in a way that makes them easy to hear. To make it work you will have to listen with curiosity and compassion. Ultimately, such open communication fosters mutual understanding and this understanding is the bridge that leads to dialogue and resolution.