Redefining our Relationship to Conflict

by | October 10, 2012 Categories: ,

Redefining our Relationship to Conflict

I have spent the past 20+ years engaged in teaching people how to navigate conflict.  I started in the early 90’s teaching Basic Mediation.  I continue to this day offering multiple classes and seminars on skills and strategies for effectively engaging this experience we call conflict.

Reflecting on this history I have become aware that my efforts have been based on some very basic assumptions.  When people are asked to identify words to describe their experience with conflict the majority of their descriptors will have a negative connotation.  Not surprising when conflict is defined as “a perception of incompatible difference or threat”.  We believe that conflict is dangerous and therefore have focused on teaching skills and strategies that will mitigate this danger and reduce the potential “cost of conflict.”

We contrast this with what we say we believe; a value of groups and teams is in their diversity of experience and perspective.  Peter Senge writes:

In great teams, conflict becomes productive.  The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.

Many begin to wonder if these “great teams” exist in reality or are just the visions of ivory tower academics.  However, when asked, most people can identify an experience similar to that described by Senge.  So how do we engage this paradox and redefine our relationship to conflict?

If we approach this challenge from a narrative perspective, we recognize that we all have “stories” about conflict.  These stories synthesize the interpretations of our past experiences with conflict and inform that way in we anticipate future experiences.  Why do so many people describe themselves as conflict averse?  To use the language of mental health we could say that many people have “trauma informed” narratives regarding conflict.  Conflict, for many, has been a destructive experience, the memory of which continues to “traumatize” their current experience.

Another model for understanding this dynamic is the “Winning Strategy” introduced by Tracy Goss in her book, The Last Word on Power.

“A Winning Strategy is a lifelong, unconscious formula for achieving success. You did not design this Winning Strategy, it designed you. As a human being and a leader, it is the source of your success and at the same time the source of your limitations. It defines your reality, your way of being, and your way of thinking. This, in turn focuses your attention and shapes your actions, thereby determining what’s possible and not possible for you as a leader.”  ~Tracy Goss, The Last Word on Power

Applying this model, we acknowledge that we all have developed “Winning Strategies” for navigating conflict.  For example:

  • you may have learned to be competitive and get our way.
  • you may have learned to accommodate to the wishes of others and maintain the peace.
  • you may have learned that conflict is best avoided and/or denied.
  • you may have learned at an early age the value of compromise the importance of give and take and middle ground.
  • you may have been experienced mutual gain or benefit through effective collaboration.

Our winning strategies define what is both possible and impossible.

So whether you reflect on your current narrative or your winning strategy, the question becomes, “how well do they serve you?”

This same question can be asked of us as Conflict Engagement Professionals.  I have observed over the years that many who enter the profession of Conflict Engagement have trauma informed narratives of conflict and enter the field in an effort to “fix it” for others.  We enter the field believing that we are neutral and impartial and yet knowing all along that our personal relationship to conflict is informing all that we do.  So as is true in so may contexts, maybe we need to start with ourselves.

Bernie Mayer, author of, Staying with Conflict:  The Challenge of Engagement of Enduring Disputes, invites us to shift our professional narratives about conflict engagement.  He invites us to consider shifting:

  • from Prevention to Anticipation
  • from Management to Support
  • from Resolution to Engagement.

I believe that we increase our effectiveness at engaging conflict when:

  • we as professionals redefine our relationship to conflict, and
  • we focus efforts on supporting those we serve in redefining their individual and collective relationships to conflict.

We must deconstruct unhealthy conflict stories in order to develop healthier and more effect “winning strategies”.

To be continued . . .

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