How many times have you been involved in a conflict situation and said something that you later regretted? Or attempted to avoid the situation altogether, or adopted a passive-aggressive approach only to find yourself plagued by a lingering feeling of unfinished business? While we each deal with conflict in our own way, this highly charged word presents an opportunity for growth, development and social change.
Conflict is not inherently bad, but a natural outcome of multiple realities, diverse frames of reference and contrasting stories. We often assume that we share a single reality with others. When that doesn’t happen, we are suddenly suspended in confusion which prompts us to search for shared meaning and understanding.
At a surface level, conflict stems from a threat to our fundamental needs such as a sense of meaning, self-efficacy, safety, control and recognition. But at a microscopic level, we find conflict deeply rooted in the perception of limited power, recognition and resources whereby the aim is to neutralize or eliminate opposing forces.
The Transformative Approach to Conflict
Conflict transformation is a holistic process of engaging with conflict. It differs from conflict management and conflict resolution approaches in that its goal is to use the potential destructive energy of a disagreement (competitiveness, aggressiveness or violence) to transform it into a more constructive process. Rather than perceiving conflict as a threat to be resisted, the transformative approach views it as a natural part of the human experience to be embraced. Instead of focusing on the surface levels of disputes, conflict transformation encourages us to develop creative change processes through less visible aspects of volatile situations.
To transform conflict, you must reframe your perceptions and approaches to disharmony. This means choosing what the event means to you, actively deciding how you will be impacted by it and where you will focus your attention to see things in a more positive light.
Reframing Your Perceptions
The following strategies can help you reframe your thoughts about and approaches to conflict.
Address issues early. Confront issues before they spiral out of control. Avoiding an issue doesn’t make it disappear, but induces stress, increases miscommunication, reduces collaboration and problem solving capacity and leads to mistrust. Once you’ve sat with your feelings and determined what you want, assert yourself by expressing your sentiment. Perfection is not necessary, since your intention is not to manipulate, take down or even the score with the other party. Your goal is to share your needs and desires in a way that does not undermine the relationship or your self-respect.
Engage at a deeper level. Engaging with others is a first step in understanding diverse values, beliefs and perspectives. Deeply listening to other perspectives through thoughtful dialogue is a humbling experience in that it forces you out of your self-justifications with an openness to the possibility of discovery and reconciliation. Dialogue differs from discussion and debate which both involve — to some extent — advancing a position, making a point or striving to win.
Honest dialogue involves the heart, mind and body. The mind produces creative ideas that can be generated through thoughtful discourse; the heart contains emotional memories and deeply held attitudes and core values that need to be addressed; and the body stores unpleasant experiences in its cells. In order for reconciliation to be complete, there must be a positive effect resulting from engagement at each of these three levels.
Separate people from problems. Making people the problem keeps you stuck and increases the risk of destroying relationships, which can lead to deeper problems. Focus your attention on the issue and not the person. Demonstrate curiosity by asking probing questions: “What are the reasons behind this person’s position?” “What are their real intentions?” “What might I learn from their position?” “How might we work together to produce more creative solutions to meet both our needs?” This deepens your understanding of what the conflict is really about, helps you gain perspective by focusing on interests (win/win) instead of positions (win/lose), and allows you to better discern the other party’s intentions. This strengthens relationships and facilitates forward movement.
Assume self-responsibility. While you may think you’re an ‘expert’ in uncovering the faults of others, blaming and judging is a double-edge sword. It puts others on the defensive and exacerbates the situation. Assuming full responsibility for self allows you to stop and acknowledge how your own feelings of fear and powerlessness may be contributing to the situation. Self-responsibility paves the way to grasp how you might be limiting your effectiveness by getting in your own way. It helps you face the realities about yourself and places you in an empowering position to make more thoughtful decisions and choose more constructive approaches.
Until Next Time,