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Getting Comfortable with Conflict

June 12th, 2010

Over the past 33+ years I have presented or facilitated hundreds of conflict related workshops for different groups. One very common theme throughout these sessions is the general aversion most participants have toward conflict. I have found very few individuals who like or are comfortable with conflict, especially when they are personally involved.

Another, and closely related, theme is how most people don’t really understand conflict; how it works or its role in the group process or in interpersonal relations. Once people begin to explore the dynamics involved and gain some understanding of how conflict affects their personal life, there may be a shift in their perception of conflict. Sometimes there is even a lessening of the fear of conflict. In fact, sometimes there is an embracing of the role of conflict has in building strong teams or relationships.

So what is conflict? To begin our understanding of conflict we first need to decide what it is. Webster’s has several definitions of conflict. The first speaks of a “fight”, “battle”, “war.” Another meaning describes it as a “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles.” Yet another meaning is “antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons).” With these definitions, it is no wonder people fear or feel uncomfortable with conflict. These definitions seem harsh and unnatural. Anyone would want to avoid this kind of an experience.

Within these definitions there is a clear understanding that conflict involves differences between and/or among people. Therefore, if we want to begin understanding conflict and create an opportunity for better appreciation we may need to define it as a little less threatening.

Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan in their book, Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader: How You and Your Organization Can Manage Conflict Effectively, define conflict as, “any situation in which people have incompatible interests, goals, principles, or feelings.” In Constructive Conflict Management: Managing To  Make a Difference, author John Crawley defines conflict as “a manifestation of differencs working against one another.” From these two definitions it becomes clear that conflict is everywhere; that it is a common part of human interaction and present in everyday life. And since every human being is unique with many opportunities for differences, conflict cannot be avoided. It is as much a part of life as the sun that we depend on  and the air that we unconsciously breath.

From this perspective it is not so much that we experience conflict, but how we handle that conflict experience. If we can begin to perceive conflict for what it is, a natural part of life, maybe we can realize the need to learn how to deal with it and not just fear it.

Now that we know we need to learn better skills for dealing with conflict, how do we go about learning those skills. In my workshops, I spend a significant portion of time addressing personal perception of conflict. Do we really know what we are seeing or hearing that leads us to the perception we have of the situation? Therefore, knowing yourself, how you make judgments and  interact with others is critical. Am I overly critical of others because I hold high standards for myself? Do I jump to conclusions before I have all the information because I have had a similar previous experience? Or, do I avoid certain people or situations because I still have hurt feelings about something and have not worked through those feelings?

And what about language? Again, in the workshops participants become keenly aware that language is critical to conflict. We spend time understanding that words really don’t have meanings. Instead, we discover that the meaning lies within the person. Based on our life experience, culture, beliefs, etc. we assign a value and meaning to the word and what it represents to us.

By now the workshop presenters have accepted the fact that conflict management really starts with the individual and they are really ready to work on developing specific skills for dealing with conflict. They are now beginning to get more comfortable with conflict and are more willing to learn how to be less fearful of conflict.

In my next post, I will explore some of the specific skills of managing and resolving conflict. And believe me there is a difference between managing and resolving conflict.

Until next time, become aware of the many opportunities for how people deal with their differences and, therefore, the potential for conflict in everyday life experiences.

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