Mention the words ‘conflict’ and ‘conflict resolution’ and it raises some interesting responses. Three of the most common are: denial of having any conflict in one’s life, interest in the subject, or a mixture of the two – some interest, followed by a polite distancing, as if the ‘condition’ were contagious.
So why is there such resistance and need for disassociation from conflict? In a word, stigma. By seeing conflict in extreme terms such as war and destruction, or as aggressive behaviour, physical and verbal fights, anger and hurt, we have stigmatised it as something unwanted and negative. While these terms certainly represent what often happens in conflict, they don’t describe the whole picture.
Conflict per se is neither positive nor negative, but neutral. It heralds growth and progress and the death and decay of what no longer works – be it in relationships, institutions or procedures. Conflict cannot escalate or de-escalate by itself; it requires our thoughts, perceptions, behaviour and communication to determine its process and outcome. But by seeing conflict only in its destructive form, we have given rise to a collective fear that is apparent in our individual attitudes and in the manner used to deal with it.
While this fear is shared, we each have our own responses to fear and these too add to our behaviour and communication during conflict. Some may respond by fighting, others by fleeing and others by freezing. As a result some of us fight, others placate ad others ignore the issue in the hope that it will just go away. Each reaction reconfirms our perception of conflict as something negative.
This stigma also gives rise to another fear, that of social exclusion. Simply put, given that we have deemed conflict to be bad, we then regard each other as equally bad for engaging in it.
This collective fear of conflict and of social exclusion, have rendered our approach to resolution dualistic. One is either right or wrong; within society, or outside of it; one can either win, or lose. This duality is also evident in the over-reliance of the judicial system to settle disputes and decide this outcome for us. Thinking this way, keeps us stuck in a blame-game, which, in its pantomime-like nature, enables us to either brush aside, or hide, our apprehensions about conflict and our ability to deal with it.
Our present method is to handle conflict as quickly and as forcefully as possible, so as to banish it from our lives. It is essentially a battle for supremacy and a race of ‘first-past-the-post-of-social- inclusion’. This invariably produces short-lived settlements based on little understanding and imposed rules, that give rise to renewed arguments further down the line.
This stigmatised view of conflict is a noose around our necks; collectively and individually. It destroys clear communication and mutual understanding – the very cornerstones of conflict resolution. Indeed, the process used in conflict resolution focuses on inclusive dialogue, which enables the parties to arrive at a mutually-beneficial and long-lasting resolution.
Reframing our understanding of conflict helps us regard it as a normal and everyday part of our lives, thus rendering it more inclusive – both socially and in its resolution.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS CONFLICT?
Simply put, conflict is the tension that arises from the need for change. There are three fundamental changes involved in conflict: those affecting our dynamics, the distribution of resources and our social structures.
How we present our needs and react to change, either loosens or tightens the tension and improves or breaks clear communication. We may want change, fear it, resist it, or we may want it on our terms. In its extreme reaction this can result in war, at other times a fight or a physical struggle; but it can equally give rise to a discussion, a team or family meeting or a national election. We are the ones who ultimately decide whether it will escalate or not.
As change is a part of our lives, then so too is conflict. The workplace, social and family settings often present us with changes in dynamics. One very common conflict hotspot is the washing-up. Is it done, not done, how is it done, when is it done, by whom is it done, how often is it done – and why is it always me doing it?!
Sound familiar? The same can be said over meeting deadlines and getting the job done in the workplace.
While we can stay stuck in the blame-game, what we are really arguing about is not the washing-up or attitudes to the workload, but over the roles we play; how we are perceived and the impact of the situation on our self-esteem. We are in conflict because one or more of us feels a need to change the dynamics of the relationship.
As cuts are precipitating changes in social structures and the distribution of resources, the economic crisis is giving rise to a society in conflict. This resistance to change has resulted in organized political protest, peaceful and violent, and increased tension and uncertainty in the workplace.
So conflict is everywhere; it’s very normal and very commonplace. Tensions arise because we respond differently to change and because our individual needs are not the same at a given moment in time.
Denying conflict as a part of our lives deprives us of the benefits it can also bring: mutual understanding and equally beneficial outcomes. But in order to get there, we need to distance ourselves from the stigma and not conflict itself. We need to understand how to stop it from escalating as often as it does. To change the effect conflict has on us, we need to give it another definition; doing so will help change our thoughts and behaviour in it.
By reframing conflict we can move out of blame and truly understand each other’s needs and positions. Moreover, by regarding conflict as neither good nor bad, we can look at our own apprehensions to dealing with it and change their effect on our behaviour and approach to resolution.
In so doing we can improve our interactions tenfold, however good they already are!