In almost every class we teach on Conflict Resolution, we run into many participants who loathe the idea of dealing with interpersonal conflict. Inevitably, the class conversation circles around participants’ fear of conflict, with most disclosing they would rather ignore it, hoping it will just “blow over.” When we ask the class how this strategy has worked out for some of them in the past, most say that typically the same conflict will resurface at some point and sometimes be even more intense than when first encountered.
The impacts of conflict
First, it’s essential to discuss the impact conflict can have if not dealt with properly. It’s safe to say that any interpersonal conflict that is toxic enough to potentially end a relationship, derail a work team or imbue a company culture in toxic waste is the extreme.
Usually, these situations occur when conflicts are left to fester so badly it creates negative energy that is hard to repair. These types of conflicts must be avoided and eradicated from one’s life by leaving the situation, cutting the toxic person out of our lives, or leaving our place of employment for greener and friendlier pastures.
It’s important to acknowledge that we humans can be judgemental and messy, with even the most righteous among us putting out some kind of negative energy into the universe that will “irk” someone else. We’ve all had that co-worker that can make us “bristle” whenever they enter the room. No reason, just that there’s something about them we simply don’t like or we had a negative interaction with them some time ago, and there are lingering hard feelings. These are opportunities where transformation through conflict can occur.
Can conflict be positive?
What seems to help a group of workshop participants through this murky topic is to ask them to look at conflict as not something bad. This requires us to change our way of thinking and accept that conflict can be positive – which is usually met with some hard eye-rolling from the class. However, we press on and explain that we can look at conflict as something that can transform relationships; then, the audience usually starts to come around.
We teach several vital skills to assist with this exploration process to effectively resolve the issue, giving workshop participants a “toolkit” to aid them in providing support to the person in conflict. This new toolkit, along with a shift in our thinking, helps participants see that conflict isn’t that bad. Our experience that working through a conflict with someone else can have the effect of actually strengthening our relationship with that person.
In their book Interpersonal Conflict, authors Wilmont & Hocker break down how conflict can be transformative by exploring four key points to be considered:
- Conflict is inevitable; therefore, the constructive way to approach it is as “a fact of life.” As judgmental creatures, human beings can blame others for conflict as they assume harmony is the standard way of being. Once people begin to accept that whenever you put a group of people in a room together, there will eventually some issue that will arise as conflict, they can use their problem-solving skills rather than wasting time playing the “blame game.”
- Conflict helps to “bring problems to the table.” In a nutshell, conflict should be seen as an “informer,” indicating that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. If we look at this from the lens of assisting someone rather than avoiding the negative person, we may begin to soften our stance, which will allow us to be available for the person and guide them through a problem-solving process rather than the alternatives of a possible shouting match or complete avoidance.
- Conflict often helps people join together and clarify their goals. In our conflict resolution classes, we teach participants a process for holding an effective conflict resolution meeting. With this method, the skilled individual ensures a collaborative approach to allow both parties to be clarified and ultimately explored. Usually, these meetings’ outcome is that both parties have their goals met by exploring interests. Once interests on both sides are exposed, potential options for resolution can be identified by ensuring both parties’ interests are considered.
- Conflict can function to clear out resentments and help people understand each other. In a conflict, we cannot explore resolution with only our perspective as the guide. When others challenge us and let us know their interests (what they hope, fear and feel) our ability to understand the other person broadens. When we take the time to explore what’s important to the other person in the conflict, we typically discover that we may have more in common with the individual than we thought. This realization can clear the path for better understanding and empathy for what the other person is experiencing. This understanding of common interests can transform and strengthen our relationship with the person we are conflicted with.
So, next time you are in a conflict situation, try to shift your thinking and accept some of the 4 points above. When conflict arises, we are allowed to transform our relationships with those with whom we may disagree. We have the chance to strengthen these relationships by only viewing conflict as an opportunity for change instead of viewing it as something that must be avoided at all costs. If applied, you may just find yourself moving away from being a conflict-avoider to someone who deals with conflict with increased confidence.