By Frank J. Rich
Most disagreements are the result of misunderstanding. There, I’ve said it. It’s that simple. All that is left, one would assume, is to clear the misunderstanding.
“Our ‘opponents’ are our co-creators, for they have something to give which we have not. The basis of all cooperative activity is integrated diversity…. What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature… Fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.”
Mary Parker Follett, among the first to advocate conflict resolution and democratic principles in the workplace, penned this note just after World War I. Her observations are less “truth” today. Technology advancements have enabled huge changes in personal mobility, global transportation, and communications that daily bring us face-to-face with a diverse world.
Economic globalization is already a common reality for business. And the World Wide Web has made it possible to access the secrets of an entire universe. Diversity is fast disappearing in a world that no longer requires getting on a plane to discover it, but only the pole vaulting of a keyboard and telephone keypad with one’s fingers. Diversity is not only a precious resource, but also a significant source – “not merely of conflict, but learning, personal and organizational development, evolutionary adaptation, and life itself.”
The issue in embracing diversity is fear in its elemental form – we fear that something we think is ours alone is at risk of being taken from us. But as we get closer to each other, increasingly interdependent, we must confront the senseless and destructive intolerance of diversity. Complex by nature, conflict arising from cultural and personality differences, divergent belief systems, competing self-interests, or bellicose demands for attention, wealth and resources, is really a simple matter.
We can play it safe, retreat from dialogue, and move against our opponents based on a fear of differences, a desire to suppress them and a need to satisfy our own selfish interests. Or we can take a risk, engage in dialogue and move toward the other, celebrating our differences toward collaboratively satisfying each other’s underlying interests. It allows us to understand, discuss, and learn from our differences, and to recognize that conflicts offer a unique opportunity for success. Taking a risky approach to conflict resolution grows that understanding, as well as new skills, and solutions not thought possible before. If only for these reasons, conflict is a valuable personal and organizational opportunity and a powerful source of learning, development and growth.
Two Kinds of Conflict
Short of psychological illness, conflict arises from two fonts – interpersonal and systemic. Both are organizational issues. Interpersonal conflict is mostly the result of simple miscommunications or misunderstandings that in turn derive from unrealistic expectations, unintended consequences, and exaggerated personal differences. Nearly all can be prevented, mitigated, and successfully resolved if confronted, and with a willing attitude.
Organizations also generate chronic, systemic conflicts that are deeper and far more difficult to resolve. Intractable because the issues they raise are complex, requiring far-reaching solutions, systemic conflicts are risky, stubborn, and obstacles to organizational learning, growth and adaptation – seldom appearing as random and unnecessary disputes.
Systemic conflicts expose the hidden fault lines in relationships – between people and functions – and are indicators of internal weakness and instability. They signal both the burgeoning need to change and a resistance to doing so.
Conversely, they are the sound of waiting opportunity; the subcutaneous invitation to satisfy unimagined needs. They expose contradictory cultural messages, the absence of clear vision, and the need for shared values, committed leadership, collaboration and teamwork. They signal the moment in which something isn’t working for someone and the nascent opportunity to fix or get by it.
Systemic conflicts are chronic in organizations with hierarchical layers and peer-level, bureaucratic departments, competing with each other for resources and resources. Lost in the fray is the idea of interdependent parts of an organizational whole with many goals in common. Higher levels of unity and effectiveness obtain only after beginning collaborative dialogue, negotiated differences, and when risking conflict resolution as a solution.
Feedback, coaching, mentoring, assessment and supportive confrontation can all be used to help resolve workplace conflicts. But to be successful, they require that we take risks, asking both sides to accept full responsibility for the conflict. Without this each will blame the other for what is actually within his control – a key element of the process.
When we accept responsibility for what we have contributed to the conflict, they are encouraged to do the same. When both parties accept responsibility, impasse begins to disappear. Here are some risky questions that can assist conflicting parties in accepting responsibility for their actions:
The How To
In beginning a conversation to resolve a conflict, accept first that the issue of “who is right or wrong” is, in principle, indeterminate – both by a mediator and the other parties. Workable solutions have to be discovered, then crafted to make them acceptable to both sides, through dialogue and consensus. Some tips:
- Understand the nature of the conflict– Discovering the true meaning of the conflict for each party leads to settlement, awareness, acceptance, and resolution of the underlying causes of the conflict.
- From the heart– Listening actively, openly, empathetically, and with the heart, can deliver you to the center of the conflict, where enlightenment and resolution converge.
- Look behind the issues– Beneath the issues in conflict lie hidden fears, desires, interests, emotions, histories, and motivations that reveal what’s really wrong. When they come to light, they become a source of liberation and transformation.
- Divide what matters from what’s in the way– Losing is winning if it turns us around. Shift the focus from competition to collaboration to satisfy mutual needs.
- Be creative and commit – Creative problem-solving helps, but lasting resolution requires work in the face of uncertainty and enigma, paradox and contradiction, which are part of every conflict.