Conflict: Recognizing, Managing and Learning through Relational Stress

I recently attended a workshop on conflict management and was reminded along with the others present there of some things that merit conversation. 

First, that conflict is a given – a mark of all healthy institutions.   We have differences of opinion; and more, we have competing values that inevitably mean some kind of clash.  That is, we differ on what core values should inform our policies and key decisions.   We can try to avoid conflict and insist that we need to just get along and live and work harmoniously but doing usually means that the conflict has merely been left to simmer just below the surface and this means that as often as not it will come out but in less than healthy ways.   And it will mean some level of underlying resentment that someone was not heard or that some key value – well, at least a value important to someone – was ignored or even violated. 

The better course of action is to acknowledge it; and as we are able, to name the conflict and do so in terms of core values or commitments.  That is, we name the conflict and speak of it in terms of values – that is, competing values. 

Second.   It is essential to recognize that conflict can go one of two ways.   It can be constructive or it can be destructive.   By constructive we mean that are able to move towards new learning and strengthened relationships; we are the better for what we learned and values were actually strengthened and clarified through the discussion of and the resolution of the issue at hand. 

Or, of course, conflict can be destructive – leading to tensions that persist within a relationship that results in a continual undermining of effective collegial partnership.  And the danger is that conflict becomes entrenched:  some issue, perhaps a decision that was made or an action taken, has left one party and perhaps more than one party resentful and alienated.  And when it is not addressed, not discussed, not resolved on some level, it then is in the air and unwittingly informs decisions, actions and reactions.   Factions are formed; and the undercurrent of resentment becomes part of the institutional culture.   When conflict is entrenched it can take a very long time to bring about some measure of healing and resolution, which is why it is best that conflict be acknowledged – sooner than later – and addressed. 

Third, not all conflict is actually legitimate conflict.  I might have a conflict with my neighbour who insists that the parking space in front of his house is his personal space and no one can park there other than himself.  In actually fact, that is public space; it is not his personal space.  And while I like to be attentive and considerate, the fact remains:  it is not his space; the conflict is real, but the issue is not a legitimate issue.   Someone in an organization might protest that they were either not consulted adequately of if they were consulted that we still went ahead and did what they did not want us to do.   Well, they had voice and the right to be heard, but in the end, the final decision was not theirs to make.   And so again, the conflict is real, no doubt . . . but the resolution of the conflict is not to let someone get their way.   Doing that only leads to someone using the threat of conflict as a manipulative way to get their way.   They will bully their way towards their preferred outcome. 

Fourth, one of the helpful learnings coming out of the seminar was the reminder that we all have our preferred way of dealing with conflict – a kind of default shaped by previous experience, including the hurts that inevitably impact us along the way, or one’s family of origin and how conflict was handled or addressed within one’s family when one was a child.  And this means that it is fruitful to name how we tend to react or respond.  And the standard wisdom is that we tend to flee [we avoid at all costs), we freeze (we are completely stymied by what is happening) or we fight (we immediately get defensive).   Each of these can actually be the right response in some circumstances.   Knowing this does not solve anything, of course.  But it at least helps us know ourselves better and thus inform how we might more effectively respond to our situation. 

And then, fifth, one of the key learnings was this simple principle or realization:  that sometimes we need external input if not actual mediation.   There is no shame in this; sometimes conflicted situation are so very conflicted that those who are actually within or even the cause of the conflict – perhaps even through no fault of their own [they were only doing their job], but it is what it is – cannot help bring about the resolution.   And thus an external voice or mediatorial intervention is required.   We should not move to an intervention prematurely lest we get beyond the habit of dealing with issues and points of conflict along the way.  But we also need to recognize when an impasse has been reached and where another voice is essential so that we can come to some level of resolution. 

And finally, we need to know that sometimes, we can live with our disagreements and accept that they are not conflictual in themselves.   We can agree to disagree.   In some cases, we simply defer to one another.   In other cases, it may mean that we have to part ways.   But, either way, we agree:  we are not going to live and work with a perpetual sense of an abiding or residual conflict.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.