by jamie beeson
Extended struggles. Clashing disagreements. Discord. As much as we hope to avoid it, conflict is a normal and necessary part of life. And avoiding it can actually create it. Conflict isn’t just about two opposing sides or opinions; it’s an indicator, a warning sign of sorts. A signal to let us know something is being threatened or compromised; a weak area.
When we find ourselves in conflict, we often feel an intense need to be understood. Sometimes though, the antagonist in our battle is not another person, it’s within ourselves. At times, it’s not a matter of being right or wrong, just a misalignment of priority or unmet values. Identifying what the conflict is signaling can help reveal potential solutions and find common ground.
Our first role in conflict resolution is to seek to understand before seeking to be understood. In the middle of a conflict, we tend to defend, argue against, or want to make our point known. A good question to ask is, “Do I have all of the accurate and factual information I need to respond?"
An example: Let’s call them Diane and Eve.
The common ground that once bonded them was blurred when disagreement and conflict took center stage. Diane was Eve’s boss. She had the authority to decide Eve’s position, where she would use her, and when and where Eve could have ownership in her work. Eve didn't think Diane was a fair boss; she felt devalued and overlooked. There was a loss of mutual respect. The common ground, the team vision, took a backseat and their individual needs and feelings took center stage.
The first battle in this war was to identify the mountains and get off the molehills. In other words, what was the core issue here and why? What details, accusations, and smaller conflicts were merely a result of skewed perspectives and hurt feelings? Often, we’ll find we both want the same thing but have a different way of getting there.
While communicating about conflict, we have to address some underlying questions before we can dig deeper. Conflict, especially when an offense is present, often indicates compromise of a personal priority or value. It’s important to understand what values and priorities are perceivably being threatened for both parties. That will bring you right to the nucleus of the problem.
Sometimes it’s a system (or lack of one) that causes conflict; sometimes, it's a differing perception or operation mode. Sometimes it's in the form of communication and interaction or misalignment of values. Often it's a misunderstanding or false perception about one another’s actions.
Diane felt disrespected as a leader and that her authority was in question. Her strong core value of respect was missing. Eve didn’t feel like a valuable member of the team. Her strong core value of being a respected contributor and asset to the team was missing. Once identified, a productive conversation could begin. Solutions included new communication methods, clarification of job description, acknowledging how Eve’s contribution added to the team vision, and determining the differences between preferences and expectations. The ladies identified some clear action steps to help them address each other’s needs and expectations.
Conflict conversations are difficult and can be long but necessary. There may be many battles before winning the war; the fight to make things right, a war where you both win. When we find ourselves in a conflict extending over long periods, this will compromise values and priorities (such as our mental health). We then need to ask ourselves the hard question, should I stay or should I go? I’m not saying you should quit jobs, relationships, marriages, or commitments amidst conflict, but sometimes, after all resources have been exhausted, conversations have been had, and options have been explored, it’s time to ask that hard question. This doesn’t mean you judge, criticize, and draw lines of bitterness; it simply means you have to agree to disagree.
Suppose core values (what matters most, highest priorities, and deepest drivers) are compromised in such a way and so frequently that you feel constant unrest and misalignment. In that case, it may be time to go. Your departure may be the best for you AND them. This may not mean quitting something. It may mean distancing yourself from a group of friends, agreeing not to discuss specific topics, not participating in a particular organization, or finding a new role that’s a better fit.
What if we saw a conflict as an opportunity for clarity, a place where we evaluate what truly matters and communicate to gain more understanding? What if we used conflict to make us better humans by becoming more empathetic? Sounds ideal, but it will take intentionality and practice. Practicing in the smaller struggles will help when the big storms hit. The past 12 months have revealed that we all might need more practice handling conflict. If we want peace, unity, and progress, learning healthy conflict is vital.