Unleashing the Positive Power of Conflict
by Rebecca Chua
On a daily basis, the effects of our actions are imperceptible; cumulatively, though, their consequences are enormous."
- Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha
In an era when many previously unmentionable (usually four-letter) words have been admitted into the lexicon of daily use, there is still one word that strikes dread into the heart. One word that still makes people anxious to avoid any contact with, if not downright suspicious of, you. That word is "conflict", and it conjures up unpleasant images of violent opposition and deadly destruction.
The experts define conflict as a clash of interests, values, actions or directions. But even before conflict actually erupts, they point to the existence of potential conflict as a kind of powder keg just waiting to detonate. As a result, no one wants to have anything to do with conflict. Unfortunately, avoiding conflict is akin to hoping that something will go away if you pretend it doesn't exist.
Yet conflict is all around us and informs everything we do. The existence of conflict is, in fact, a very healthy situation, because it demonstrates the myriad choices we face in life. The problem, of course, arises when we have to make specific choices, often at the expense of others.
That's why, for me, conflict is more about mismatched expectations, usually desires versus fears, than about the unfortunate consequences of conflict when left to fester. What really happens when parties are in conflict is that they have different expectations about the outcomes. Yet these outcomes do not have to be mutually exclusive, or what's called a zero-sum game. Conflict, when explored and exercised creatively, can provide win-win solutions to potential problems.
As Penny Werthner, sport psychologist & professor, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa points out, "Conflict can be constructive when it opens up discussion on issues of importance, when it results in solutions to those issues, and when it increases the involvement of individuals in the discussion. It can be destructive when it begins to take too much energy and diverts focus from more important activities, destroys an individual's sense of self-confidence, and polarizes a team."
Often, an initial awareness of conflict is internal, and deeply personal. Approach-avoidance conflict refers to the tension experienced by someone who is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the same goal. This occurs when an individual moves closer (physically or psychologically) to a seemingly desirable goal, only to have the potentially negative consequences of achieving that objective push back against the closing behaviour.
Take the classic case of the entrepreneur who wants to make a sale but fears rejection and so ends up procrastinating, or not making that sales call. The conflict arises from mismatched expectations around making the sale (desire) and rejection (fear). Assessing the conflict provides the recognition that not making the call will not bring rejection, but it doesn't further the desired result (the sale). Exploring the conflict more fully allows you to examine your fears and to prepare more adequately for meeting the needs of your client.
Then there's the conflict that often arises from competition. Usually, two or more parties have what seem to be mutually incompatible goals, so that when one party tries to reach their goal, it will undermine the attempts of the other(s) to reach theirs. If you are vying for your client's business with a competitor, and your client says he only has the budget to accommodate one but not the other, it might appear that only you or your competitor would emerge the winner.
Conventional wisdom would not have you confer with your competitor. But, by doing so, you might discover that you were both able to collaborate on the job, that she was far more interested in providing a product or service that you would be happy to concede to her, leaving you free to concentrate on your own area of expertise, and enabling you to save some costs involved in the delivery!
Contrary to popular opinion, conflict can also occur when you are actually co-operating with each other. That frequently happens when you have different ideas about the timing or direction of an approach. Say, your collaborator doesn't meet a deadline and that causes you a delay in meeting your own commitments. Or your client might suggest a 360-degree change in approach which might suit you better than your competitor. What could easily deteriorate into an ugly blame game can be quickly averted by having a full and frank discussion. How can this be achieved?
1. Listen, not just for your own agenda, but for what others really want
Truly listening is not a skill that comes easily, but it can be learned, and pays huge dividends when used wisely
2. Be prepared to accept the needs, desires, motivations and suggestions of others as being as equally valid as your own
When you accept that others are as equally deserving as yourself, you are less inclined to play power games.
3. Be prepared to abandon your entrenched positions or at least question their effectiveness
If we lock ourselves into thinking we know best, we don't know what other, better alternatives we might not consider
As you will have gathered by now, the key to working with conflict lies in timely communication. Open communication will defuse any time bomb of a situation, but it requires a receptive spirit, a willingness to listen and, above all, the ability to share responsibility, that is, to accept and work with what others want, and not just see things from your own perspective.
Although physical fitness in the workplace is now being embraced as sound management practice, few enterprises recognise that mental and emotional fitness are equally, if not more, important in enhancing productivity, workplace satisfaction and work/life balance. The ability to unleash the positive power of conflict is an important step in the direction of integrating our life's work with what matters to us as human beings, and as members of a worldwide community.
Rebecca Chua's approach to conflict is uniquely cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary, utilizing story telling, neurolinguistic, improv and Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. A Rotary Foundation Fellow, she earned an M.A. in Mass Communications before training in Advanced Mediation at Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo.
Added on November 28, 2006