What is a conflict?

If we are going to effectively address a problem we have to be able to identify it when we see it.  So consider for a moment what you are observing when you find yourself in conflict with someone.  What is happening for you?

Most people will  report that there is some sort of difference between them and the one with whom they are in conflict.  There is a difference of opinion or perspective or the other isn’t doing what they want.  Sometimes we are not doing what they want.  In any case, there is a difference we don’t like.

Another thing we may notice is that we are having a “bad” feeling.  There is something about what is arising that gives us feelings we don’t like.  And it may be that the other is having feelings we don’t want them to have.

Still, if we watch for these conditions we notice that people often do things we don’t want them to do or they have feelings we don’t like, but we don’t experience that we are in conflict with them.  If we really notice closely what is happening when we discern that we are in conflict it is only when others are not who we want them to be or we have feelings we don’t like and…and this is the crucial point…and we don’t know what to do.  We don’t call it a “conflict” until we want it to be different and we don’t know how to make it so.  Thus…

A conflict arises whenever the other is not who we want them to be or we are not who they want us to be or either of us is having feelings we don’t want or want them to have, and…we don’t know what to do about it. 

The central source of the awareness of conflict is that sense that we are stuck not being able to fix a problem we care about.  Thus, the better we are at addressing conflicts the less conflicted we are likely to feel.  We reduce conflict by addressing it, not by avoiding it.

Distinguishing conditions from strategies

However clear we may be about the need to name, address, and resolve conflicts, we still find some that are just so overwhelming that we back away from them.  It order to feel more confident about our ability to resolve conflict we are going to make a series of distinctions.  A distinction is simply the recognition that this is not the same as that.  They may be very similar, but there are important differences.

One crucial distinction is that the conditions that cause a conflict to arise are not the same as the strategies we use to address the conflict.  We encounter confusion in that we use the term “conflict” to refer to both the conditions and the strategies.

When we hear on the news that conflict has broken out in some troubled part of the world, we know that someone is probably shooting at someone else.  When we hear that conflict has ceased because of a cease-fire, we know that the conditions that brought about the shooting have not been settled, but at least the violent fighting has stopped.

At times we find ourselves in tension with others and we consider whether to say anything about the situation but decide not to because, “we don’t want to start a conflict.”  The conflict as a condition will continue unaddressed but we at least have not started a fight.

For the purposes of JustConflict or Creative Conflict Resolution we will only use the term “conflict” to refer to the condition.

Some of the strategies for addressing conflicts fall into the category of fighting.  Simply put, we are fighting whenever we are engaged in behavior that is designed to make someone else lose.  But there are other ways of addressing conflict that actually lead to resolution.  Fighting never does.

Why are some conflicts so complicated?

From time to time we will address a conflict with someone in a calm and clear manner and the outcome seems to be an agreement based upon a full understanding. Nevertheless, in time, the same conflict arises again.

It may seem to us that the other is very stubborn, or, at the very least, that the conflict is stubborn.  But we would just like to settle this so we don’t have to keep addressing the same conflict.  Why do we have to keep wrestling with this same thing over and over?

The reason is that conflicts arise on multiple levels and addressing one of the levels may not address the others.

Resource-based Issues

We tend to find it easiest to recognize conflicts as resource-based issues.  Resources are things like money, time, attention, sleep… They are things that are finite and thus we notice when there is not enough.  They are great things to fight about because it is easy to know who the winner is.

Identity-based Issues

Another aspect of the conflict, and thus something we will need to clarify if the conflict is to be resolved, is the matter of who we are to each other.  What is the nature of our relationship, what do we mean to each other, what roles are we expected to play with the other?

Process-based Issues

In addition to the what we are in conflict about and the who we are to each other when this arises is the how we can be together to create what we both need.  What is the process we use to get our needs met?  How do we make decisions?  How is power distributed?

We will need to identify what is not working in the relationship at each of these levels and fully address all of them if we are to be able to feel confident that we can resolve the conflict whenever it appears.

What makes conflicts so intense?

Some issues, even ones which arise often, are just no big deal.  But others, whether they commonly occur or have never been seen before, can have such a fierce intensity that we are intimidated by them.

The intensity of a conflict is a function of two factors.  One is the degree to which the parties are invested in the issue.  The other is the degree to which the parties see the issue from a different perspective.

Strength of Attachment

Each of the parties to the conflict have an investment in the issue and its outcome.  The higher the level of attachment, the more intense the conflict is felt to be.  If a party is genuinely not concerned about what happens, then the intensity is diminished.

Divergent Perspectives

If the parties see the issue from the same point of view then there is no conflict.  Indeed, the issue may be one that brings the parties together and creates a kind of intimacy.  But the more different these perspectives are experienced as being the greater will be the felt intensity.

Because we experience the intensity of the conflict growing the more we care about the issue or the outcome, we may try to ease the discord by acting as though we don’t really care.  This costs us our integrity and we bottle up resentment.

Because the intensity is a product of seeing the issue differently, we may work to get the other to see our point of view.  Sharing our own perspective is a fine thing to do.  But we will sometimes try to diminish or discredit the perspective of the other.  This is a form of fighting and just builds resistance and resentment in the other.

What would it mean to resolve a conflict?

The good news is that we don’t have to pretend like we don’t care and we don’t have to each see the issue the same way in order to create resolution.  Indeed, caring deeply about issues is a source of great richness and vitality in our lives.  And the fact that we see from different places creates  deeper awareness. My left eye and my right eye don’t see the same image.  When my brain can hold both of these images in a creative tension I am able to perceive depth.

Just so the process of resolution is one of being able to hold apparently divergent perspectives in a creative tension.  What this means in practice is that I only have to be able to see what the perspective of the other is and to see how that perspective is valid for the other.  If I can also see how their perspective is valid for me, that is a bonus.

When we each see the perspective of the other as valid for the other we are able to create a new framework that is the ground of resolution.

  • When this is something we are creating with the other this is the creation of an agreement.
  • When this is something we each do on our own behalf, either in preparation for an agreement of in the awareness that the other is not willing or able to construct and agreement with us, this is discovering a new way of being for ourselves.

What next?

No matter whether we have hope of this being an issue we can address with the other, the first person we need to be able to fully connect with is ourselves.  You are invited to work through the modules in whatever order makes to most sense to you, but please be aware that you have to be fundamentally grounded in your own experience before you are going to have the power to make a meaningful change in the relationships you construct with others.  For that reason I suggest you go next to Connecting with Our Selves.

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