Conflict resolution or conflict management?
Let me first share a baseline assumption born of life experience-though we use the term daily, true “conflict resolution” is a rare commodity. What most of us are experiencing at work and at home on a daily basis is conflict management. And I further submit to you that this is a good thing. Why? Because inherent in conflict is contrasting information, and wherever there is contrasting information, there is potential for learning and a broadened perspective.
As leaders, how do we get ourselves to an appreciation, a trust in the abundant possibilities of a good juicy conflict? It’s fairly easy to recognize and steer clear of the extremes of conflict management-rote agreement by a group at all costs we have come to call “the Abilene Paradox” from Jerry Harvey’s 1988 work by that title. And unrelenting, unwavering contentious and disparaging disagreement by all parties on all things we’ve come to call … politics I suppose! It’s the middle ground where, as leaders, as parents, as community members, we can get bogged down.
Stop pushing and start allowing
I read a quote recently from a daily meditation service, Abraham-Hicks, that, along with other events, sparked this writing. The quote is this: “Even in your rightness about a subject, when you try to push your rightness toward another who disagrees, no matter how right you are, it causes more pushing against. In other words, it isn’t until you stop pushing that any real allowing of what you want can take place.” Put another way, the biblical message popularized by Stephen Covey gets at the same idea-”Seek first to understand, and only then seek to be understood.”
Give thanks for the conflict
My abundance lens would suggest one more adjustment on that advice: seek first to give thanks for the conflict, for the opportunity to broaden your perspective, for the chance to learn more about yourself (i.e. “why does this bother me and doesn’t seem to bother others? What is it in my experience that is so reactive to this situation?”) and gain greater clarity on a particular issue. Seek to embrace it. In Patrick Lencioni’s marvelously common sense book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team he makes a compelling case for the healthy use of conflict as a foundational element of high performing teams. Why? Because when a team (or family) can get a variety of views out in the open and all members feel as if their experience and views and opinions have been given due consideration, the odds of selecting a best course of action and gaining team commitment to it improve exponentially. When participants withhold their opinions, they often also withhold their commitment to team decisions.
Take the longer view
Appreciating conflict and seeking to learn from it does NOT mean that you necessarily give in to the other, or even that you will always come to agree. Creating a place of respect and appreciation for the other person and their point of view, however, sets up conditions far more conducive to accomplishing a greater outcome. There are certainly times when clear decisions must be made that can, in the moment, be difficult for some participants to support. That’s life-that’s why we call it conflict management, not resolution. The key question is not simply “Do we all agree?” or even “Can we all support this?” but rather a longer view question of “Have we reached this decision in a way that (a) gave all players a voice, (b) considered all reasonable options, (c) allowed all to hear and understand the nuances, feelings, and perceived implications of the different points of view and (d) leaves the team relationships in a place that we can have future debates and healthy conflicts openly and without ‘baggage’?”
Appreciation can unlock the treasure chest
There are large opportunities in productive conflict management. Starting from a place of appreciation rather than resistance unlocks that treasure chest.