I’ve been giving some thought to the nature of conflict recently and the assessment that it would be an inevitable part of our humanness. I’ve always loved my work exactly because people bring and offer such variety, nuance and depth but it is this same variety and difference that gives rise to conflict. Whether that conflict is localised or plays out on an international scale.
Information on the subject of conflict is plentiful and why therefore add to it? It is often said that conflict is a source of creativity, that it can be positive and generative. That maybe so, but from my world view, in order for that to be so, these things will occur only when we are skilled and masterful at managing ‘ourselves’ in conflict. If I withdraw from, or fight against conflict, I am less likely to find anything positive or creative or generative.
I assert that much of what comes out of conflict has to come from how we ourselves are with it – whether we are in it, or observing, managing or leading others through conflict. Primarily it isn’t about the other person ‘causing conflict’; it’s about how ‘I’ am with it.
Fred Koffman in his book Conscious Business offers a model for understanding why conflict arises in the first place. He refers to:
- Disagreement – a difference of opinion
- Scarcity of resources – a limitation which prevents each from obtaining what each wants. It creates inter-dependence which can create conflict
- Disputed property Rights – a dispute about ownership of decision making power, or budget as a couple of examples
I do love the model for it’s simplicity and ease of recall and by removing or resolving anyone of these elements the conflict will be resolved. Simple yes? Not quite. It takes practice and skill to be open and constructive in conflict.
These elements play out every day on a global scale and a local scale.
Here is a ‘local’ scenario, not dissimilar to one I have witnessed many times.
Frank is runs a large division of a big corporate. He considers himself a strong leader. Jim has been with the business for the last five years and has been instrumental for securing significant growth for the division. Jim would like a stake in the company though the employee share scheme. Typically the scheme would not extend to his level within the business. Jim sees it as a reward for his effort, Frank sees it as a reward that he will consider for some future performance – if he can get past company policy that is! Both people have apparently different personal drivers, different perspectives on the situation, a different version of the history that lies between them, different attitudes towards entitlement, appreciation, gratitude, different skills around tolerance, listening and understanding. And all this is just for starters and takes no account of other stakeholders.
They appear to be poles apart and for this scenario the fastest way to resolution is likely through mediation of some sort. A third party, an intermediary is probably going to have to get between them in order to get them together. (Unless HR simply says ‘No’.)
But imagine that they had time to practice their own capacity to process and constructively ‘be’ in a conflictive situation? What might they practice in order to generate something positive or even creative from this situation? Start here.
1. Own Your Own Stuff. In any dialogue it’s up to us to take responsibility for our own reactions, feelings and opinions. If I feel angry or frustrated, it’s down to me. The situation or the people within it might produce a particular reaction in me, but it’s me that produces it. Consider the difference between “You make me so frustrated” and “I am so frustrated with what this proposal”. Acknowledging that I own my stuff is vital to that old adage ‘choose your attitude’.
Expressing ourselves place of “I” conveys responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, opinions, requests and commitments. Using ‘I’ or “My’ can be a really great place to enquire from… ‘my hearing in this is… my understanding is that… am I correct in this assessment… ? These are all ways in which it’s possible to enquire more without sounding accusatorial, keeping the onus on ourselves to understand and hear. How easy do you find it to own your own reaction and state it so?
2. When we take responsibility for owning our Own Stuff, it’s easier to create space for ‘other’. Allow for “Other”. If we are quiet, listen well, actively, openly and curiously, we can hear and acknowledge the other person’s feelings and opinions. If we truly accept other people as ‘independent actors’ in the world, we can find ways to greater tolerance and acceptance. Greater tolerance and acceptance creates space for something creative and positive to emerge. How easy is it for you to regard others as truly independent and not as a person to move or flex to your call?
3. Acknowledge the Facts – what facts are there for both of us? Allow for different interpretations of those facts, but do more than this. Commit to understanding those different perspectives. Do more than pay lip service by suspending your own thoughts and opinions for a moment. Through genuine openness and curiosity, whilst we may not agree, we will at least be heard and understood. We will each be seen by the other. When did you last understand another perspective – one that you vehemently disagreed with?
4. Understand and work with the difference between ‘position and interest’. In the scenario above both Frank and Jim both have a clear position. We might conjecture that both ultimately have interests around reward and performance, although it is clear that they are coming from different perspectives in time, conversation and potentially value sets. Taking a clear position without sharing the underlying interests potentially creates positions of adversity – win/lose rather than win/win. (Ref Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury). Sharing the underlying interest brings another level of communication that may feel cleaner and more honest.
5. Let go of Being Right. Communicate with the intention of being understood rather than persuading. Be willing to express your reasoning and rationale. Be vulnerable. Be willing to allow that for another. When was the last time you let go of being right in the service of something bigger?