Why Conflict is a Good Thing

By Linda Adams, President of GTI

Conflicts between people are a normal, natural and inevitable part of life–at work, at home and in all our relationships with others. Unfortunately, most of us don’t really accept this fact and we still get surprised and distressed when it’s clear that a conflict has emerged.conflict, leadership

As long as everything is going along smoothly, it’s easy to be considerate and respectful of another person’s needs. They are in no way interfering with our own. But the emergence of a conflict can change all that–now we can feel threatened, anxious and angry. The same person whom we enjoyed working with yesterday now seems like an adversary. That’s because of our vast, past experience with conflict, most of which was negative.

We have a negative attitude toward conflict primarily because we haven’t learned constructive ways to deal with it–in fact, the converse is true: we have learned destructive ways of handling conflict. As children, as students and as employees (and too often as spouses) we have experienced losing in a conflict because parents, teachers and bosses use/d their power to win at our expense. Even though we know the feelings of resentment, anger, dislike, even hostility that we experience as a result of losing, the win-lose posture is deeply ingrained and when we get in positions where we have power over people, we often choose to win at their expense.

A great deal of research shows the damaging effects that win-lose conflict resolution has on interpersonal relationships. It creates distance, separation, dislike, even hatred. It’s the main reason people leave their jobs for new ones and marriages break up.

Viewing Conflict as Constructive

How conflicts get resolved is the critical factor in any relationship. In fact, it is the most critical factor in determining whether a relationship will be healthy or unhealthy, mutually satisfying or unsatisfying, friendly or unfriendly, deep or shallow, intimate or cold.

As most of us are aware, there is an alternative to the win-lose posture. It’s often been called “win-win” or “no-lose” because the goal is to find a solution to the conflict that meets the needs of both people. Resolving conflicts this way requires three important attitudes and behaviors: 1) the attitude that conflict in general presents the opportunity for constructive change; 2) the willingness to engage in the process of mutually searching for a solution that meets the needs of both people; 3) the communication and problem solving skills that it takes to make this win-win method work. Too often, people want to resolve conflicts this way, but either are not truly willing in their heart of hearts to work for a mutually-acceptable solution or do not have the skills required to work together to find one. When this occurs, the win-win method is doomed to failure.

“Let’s Keep Talking”

When you’re in conflict with another person, you both are usually aware of it at some level. There’s a sense of disruption, unease, something is not right. The communication between you might change, perhaps becoming superficial or terse. Or there’s silence.

Once you’re aware that you’re in conflict, what you do next really matters. Acknowledge that a conflict exists. Very often, we decide not to acknowledge this hoping that the conflict will somehow go away or resolve itself. That rarely happens. Only when conflicts are brought out into the open, do they have the chance of being dealt with effectively.

And as I just mentioned, dealing with conflict effectively requires skills–skills that are proven to work, sometimes like magic. When you have these skills, the idea of facing conflicts with others is not nearly so daunting, and in fact can be stimulating and energizing. (There are very few intractable problems to which there are no mutually-acceptable solutions.)

Dialogue is the key element in constructive conflict resolution. Dialogue is made up of two very different communication skills, both of which are essential–listening with empathy and non-blameful self-disclosure. As Reuel Howe states in his book, The Miracle of Dialogue: “…it must be mutual and proceed from both sides, and the parties to it must persist relentlessly…when two persons undertake it and accept their fear of doing so, the miracle-working power of dialogue may be released.”

The importance of listening with empathy to the other person’s needs, feelings and beliefs cannot be overstated. This means experiencing what it feels like to be in the other person’s shoes at that moment and then reflecting what you hear back to them to check whether you understood correctly. This can be very difficult to do especially when you have strong opposing viewpoints or feelings, but it’s possible when you’re truly intent on understanding. Something amazing happens when people feel understood and accepted at a deep level. Their need to hold onto their preconceived solution to the conflict often dissipates. And often their strong emotional feelings subside.

The other essential part of dialogue is non-blameful self-disclosure. Now it’s your turn to talk about your needs and disclose your feelings without blaming the other person. Ideally, they will be committed to listening empathically to you, to put themselves in your shoes, to experience your reality. When that happens, you too can feel catharsis, and be more open to finding a mutually-satisfying solution. Once the basic needs of each person are clearly defined and understood, moving through the other steps needed to find a solution can be done in a climate of mutual consideration and respect.

Having positive conflict resolution experiences like these are both rewarding and reinforcing. And that’s a great thing.