When I recall how I learned about conflict, I remember certain experiences growing up. I go back to elementary school where a group of boys were teasing, probably even bullying, a good friend of mine. I shot across the class and punched one of them in the face. Entering middle school, I found myself in a new and hostile environment; I was the new kid, and I would be tested. I was suspended four times that year, three times for fighting and once for skipping class to avoid a fight.
I consider myself to never have been a real fighter at heart, but that year I learned that there are forces in this world, forces that need contending with - some that need avoiding and others that need confronting. I learned that in order to avoid conflict, I needed to establish myself as one who deserved a measure of respect. During my juvenile years, it meant I would need to hash it out a few times in the schoolyard before other kids took the target off my back. I look back on those days, some 40 years ago, as formative for my understanding of how to get along in the world. I am not saying that I think that my learning was healthy, but I was in certain ways conditioned by my experiences.
What is it that creates conflicts in our lives? The answers can be many, but if you think about the things that really get under your skin, you will be able to identify particular patterns of reactive behaviors that you exhibit, behaviors that are set off by triggers. These triggers are associated with values that can be emotionally charged, due to personal experiences. For many of us, one strong trigger is injustice, the sense that something unfair has happened, or will happen, to someone we care about or to us. This can be accompanied by fears of loss or harm, whether material, social or physical. Conflict can arise simply from differences in perspectives or personal values with which one person views the other person as unjust, and this can be for any number of reasons; it really is personal.
For many of us, the schoolyards we find ourselves in as adults are just as fraught with the potential for conflict. This said, it is helpful to realize that not all conflict is bad, at least not completely. Personal values and perspectives are important. Sometimes stuff really does matter. Conflict though, rather than springing from the values and perspectives we hold, actually arises from the personal mismanagement of the feelings, triggers, and accompanying behavioral actions that follow a perceived threat to our personal values or perspectives. Did you catch that? Conflict is not automatic! This means that conflict is manageable! The fact that a person can be rattled when a value or perspective is challenged demonstrates a level of passion. This passion is not bad; if channeled in appropriate ways, it can be very healthy. It demonstrates a level of care about an issue. When personal passions are focused on real problems or differences in the workplace, diversity of values and perspectives can often be turned into great opportunities. When I bring better behavioral responses to dialogs in which passionate perspectives are exhibited, I am able to listen better and communicate my perspectives in less confrontational ways. The shift opens up relational space to move away from a Win-Lose perspective toward a Both-Gain dialog. Win-Lose perspectives frame a winner at the expense of a loser. Both-Gain dialogs seek for solutions where together we move forward toward better solutions.
What happens when the conflict has already occurred? Are there specific behavioral “self-mediation” strategies that a person can learn to work through conflicts? What about strategies for coworkers or managers who recognize conflict with team members in the workplace? As a middle school student, I remember wishing that someone with sense, an adult or a respected upperclassman, would intervene so that I would not need to face the fights. Sometimes getting an assist from someone is the life preserver we need. Hashing out differences of perspectives through constructive guided dialog most often leads to the realization that both parties value and are concerned about the very same things; they just have differences in perspective about how to handle them. Having the courage to seek for dialog sets up the conflicted parties for Both-Gain solutions. Assisting conflicted parties to navigate toward common dialog and discovery of Both-Gain solutions is a skill that is worth its weight in gold.
Written By Dave Covington, MBA
The Center for Professional Development
The Center for Professional Development offers the Manager as Mediator and Self as Mediator workshops. Check out our website to learn more and register for these workshops. Please contact Dave Covington for more information on conflict resolution training or workplace mediation for your organization.