As a species, we aren’t so hot at managing conflict. Take a wander through your favorite news site and the headlines showcase stories of sordid interpersonal strife to local and global conflict. Even in our shiny modern offices in so-called professional complexes we indulge our affinity for turf battles, ego trips, and mayhem. It’s a war zone out there. And when we aren’t warring with each other, we engage in inner conflict and turmoil.
Conflict is a necessary – and often beneficial – fact of life. We are separate entities with our own unique perspectives, preferences, and goals. It is a natural consequence that our aims and desires will at times run counter to others’, or at least appear to. Often our attempts at reconciling these differences produces a solution far richer than we would have arrived at without it. Conflict is therefore an important ingredient in both collaborative and creative processes. Things only get ugly when we exacerbate situations by failing to handle the inevitable friction in a productive manner. Usually our own suffering in conflict situations is not a result of the circumstance itself but because of our perceptions of and reactions to it.
What can we do to avoid needlessly harming ourselves and others when conflict arises? We need to stop the churning of our minds and emotions so that we can gain clarity and respond versus react.
- Tame the beast. Conflict usually elicits strong physical sensations and emotional reactions. The first thing you need to do is recognize when you begin to become physiologically aroused and attempt to cool down. Counting to ten and taking long deep breaths are common recommendations because, well, they work (if you remember to do it).
- Shift perspective. Try to adopt the vantage point of someone outside of the situation. They don’t need to be knee-deep in your organization or industry to have a useful perspective on what you are facing. What wisdom would they offer you if they were observers?
- Time travel. Imagine what you might think about the situation across time. How might you feel if you give yourself five minutes to calm down? How far out will the impact of this situation ripple – a week, a month? Will you even remember this in five years?
- Cut and paste. Mentally remove yourself from the scene to help you isolate the facts versus personal prejudices and feelings. How would this situation continue or evolve if you weren’t in it? Are your contributions moving things in a positive direction?
- Distill and simplify. What are the three things that are at the core of this situation? Why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to them? What are you both trying to achieve? Try to keep what is essential in mind; it is easy to get side-tracked and allow conflict to escalate.
In conflict, calmness leads to clarity, which fosters insight. Only with clear sight can we emerge from conflict with more than when we entered into it. Conflict doesn’t have to make us battle-weary – it can help us learn and grow if we let it.
“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” –William James
“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” –Max Lucade
“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.” –John Dewey