I’ve worked a long time with conflict. That is, teaching about it and helping others find their way through it to some sort of resolution.
Conflict is a fascinating and absorbing topic and despite many people’s anxiety about it, not one to be afraid of. On the contrary, since it is inevitable that we’ll have to deal with conflict throughout our lives, it is naive and irresponsible to stay on the sidelines and remain ignorant of the basic rules of the game.
(Maybe that’s an unfortunate metaphor because conflict should not be seen as a game, even though game theory is often referred to in the study of conflict).
The good news is that, whatever we say, we are all pretty adept at both avoiding conflict and dealing with it when we have to. We all do this constantly, most of the time without realising it. What we DO notice is the few times our tactics let us down and we argue or fight about something.
In other words, we pay more attention to our few failures than we do to our many successes. The bottom line is that, like any social species, human beings have innate abilities and characteristics that help us avoid and settle disagreements where necessary.
The fact that we don’t do it a lot of the time is down to other innate characteristics of our species that get in the way. Bernard Mayer has said that conflict exists on three planes (he called these ‘dimensions’); emotional, cognitive and behavioural.
In other words conflict involves thoughts and feelings as well as behaviour. Meyer says that for resolution to occur all three of these dimensions must be dealt with. This may be true in theory, but it’s often very difficult in practice.
What IS possible in practice is to understand that in any dispute, for the battling parties to move towards agreement, they first have to acknowledge each other as thinking, feeling human beings, each with their own set of needs that underlie the disagreement, and which must be recognised even if they cannot be satisfied.
Easier said than done, especially when you know you’re right!
Mayer, B., (2000), The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, Jossey Bass, San Francisco.