Managing Conflict Doesn’t Always Work — Here’s A Better Approach

Part Two: The new “How to Tend and Befriend Conflict” series. If you think you know how to deal with conflict, think again.

Welcome to Part Two of the “Tend and Befriend Conflict” column: A four-part series that will change the way you understand, navigate, and engage the conflict in your life. A reminder that it works for all types of conflict: personal, professional, and in the broader community. As always, would love to hear what you think. (If you missed Part One, check it out here.)

Imagine this scene (true story). A happy couple has just moved in together. Walls have a fresh coat of paint. Furniture has been carefully placed. Boxes have been unloaded and clothes have been put away. Hold up — not all clothes are away. Because the bedroom closet is small, and there is only room enough for one dresser that the couple shares, the woman’s overflow of sweaters finds themselves without a home. And because of a demanding schedule, her immediate solution is simply to fold the items and line them two-high on a bench beneath a window until a better scheme can be had.

Life being what it is, and curious cats being what they are, it doesn’t take long for the sweaters to become disheveled and eventually to tumble onto the floor. When this happens, the woman hastily tidies the pile (a bit and when time allows), while her partner growls beneath his breath from the doorway.

One night, some weeks later, the woman comes in from a grueling day at work to find one of her sweaters on the floor in the front hall. She winces, wondering how it got there. As she makes her way into the house, she discovers that all of her “homeless” sweaters — as well as other pieces of clothing — have been strewn across every room, a few even hanging from curtain rods. Her partner is on the couch (amidst said clothes), watching television as if everything was just how she left it.

The woman, aghast and never for a wont of words, erupts at her partner, hurling a series of expletives and arm-chair psychological diagnoses for the “insanity” of such behavior. In retaliation, he catapults a boulder of shame, suggesting that if she’s going to force them to live in a sty, he was perfectly justified in acting like a pig.

After tempers quiet, the “resolution” they arrive at is a visit to IKEA’s home organization department and a Saturday reconfiguring the small closet to accommodate the sweaters. While “cheers to us” and “I’m-sorry” flow between them, unfortunately, the problem isn’t resolved. The closet is still pretty tight. And the reality is that the woman has a natural inclination to fold and stack, rather than hang and tuck. A week later, some of the clothes make their way back to the bench. And again, the verbal hurling and emotional catapulting erupts.

This time when things eventually calm down, they try a “management-style” approach. The agree that whenever the man notices a piece of the woman’s clothing is out, he has license to alert her to it — kindly. Only, this strategy fails utterly when, after a few weeks, she accuses him of sounding like a screeching broken record. Not willing to give up, they then agree that he can simply put away any of her errant clothes. But soon he’s lobbing more shame-grenades at her, saying that he is tired of having to be her mother and clean up after her like a child.

Again, after a period of silent stewing, they tack and try a third seemingly rational approach: the woman will set an alarm on her phone each night with a reminder to check the bench for little-wandering clothes. But in time this too has an adverse effect. Tired of being treated as the child her partner has accused her of being, when it was, in her estimation, only a few pieces of clothing out at any time, the woman becomes so filled with resentment for what she sees as her partner’s disproportionate response, that she purposefully starts leaving clothes out. Suffice it to say their relationship further breaks down.

So, what was this couple doing wrong? According to some theories, nothing. They were using (whether intentionally or not) two common approaches to conflict, that being Conflict Resolution and Conflict Management. But as you can see, neither worked particularly well — and for good reason.

Three conflict approaches — two old, one new

Let me preface this by saying that throughout time and across culture there are infinite examples of human beings engaging conflict, for good or for ill. The field of contemporary conflict studies emerged in the wake of World War I and II, when governmental and nongovernmental groups endeavored to prevent future wars by building transnational institutions and fostering reconciliation between former enemies. Goals broadened from just attempting to stop violence to creating the conditions for peace. The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University played a critical role in the development of the field, as it undertook new research in the behavioral sciences. Out of these and related efforts grew Conflict Resolution and Conflict Management approaches.

Conflict Resolution (CR) is an “eliminate it” or “just get past it” approach to conflict.

Image: Gary Chan | Unsplash

Conflict Resolution (CR) is an “eliminate it” or “just get past it” approach to conflict. It starts with the premise that conflict is a problem to be solved. Because problems are typically thought to be unwelcome or harmful, thereby causing discomfort, it is best to deal with, get rid of, or overcome them swiftly, efficiently, and with the least amount of energy or investment.

For CR, engaging conflict is all about fundamental needs and positions: “I need [fill in the blank], and I’m not willing to do/give/pay/sacrifice/etc. anything more than [fill in the blank].” CR strategies suggest that while people won’t easily compromise their needs, they can “get past” a specific position if it’s reframed.

While some situations can be resolved with a simple shift in thought, not all are able to — especially ones that have deeper roots, where important issues are at stake and meaningful relationships exist.

Here are the downsides of CR. It doesn’t get at underlying issues (and more often than not, there are lots of underlying issues in a conflict). It also privileges “the problem” over human patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion, as well as human dynamics. And it relies on the people in conflict themselves, or else a disempowered third party, to identify and frame the problem accurately. And as we say in conflict work, much of the time “the problem” isn’t actually the problem.

Conflict Management (CM) is a “restrain and contain” approach.

Image: Jorge Salvador | Unsplash

Conflict Management (CM) is a “restrain and contain” approach. It starts with the premise that conflict is an ineradicable consequence of different interests and values; therefore, resolving it is unrealistic. While conflict may not feel so good, it is dangerous and will cause harm, so best to subdue it or corral it for now.

When it comes to engaging conflict, for CM it’s all about minimizing dysfunctional emotional interaction through rational means. Here is the problem with that: human beings are not always rational — in fact, when under stress, the rational area of the brain shuts down and the more primitive area that is geared for survival kicks in and kicks us out of “window of tolerance.” Net: our ability to be rational in conflict innately and greatly diminishes. CM is also a kind of “kick the can down the road” solution, sometimes referred to as “the great appeaser,” because while it acknowledges that conflict exists, and attends to it — sorta — it still doesn’t get at roots of the issues. Instead, it just “rearranges its flowers.”

When under stress, the rational area of the brain shuts down and the more primitive area that is geared for survival kicks in and kicks us out of “window of tolerance.” Net: our ability to be rational in conflict innately and greatly diminishes.

There is a third approach, not often talked about — not altogether known about outside transnational conflict organizations and interfaith groups. It’s called Conflict Transformation (CT), and it can be, as its name suggests, transformative — even in the case of arguments between loved ones over homeless sweaters.

Image: Jamison McAandie | Unsplash

Introducing Conflict Transformation (CT)

In the early 1980s, conflict practitioners all over the world were working with great power imbalances and embedded complex histories and narratives, and they quickly became frustrated by the resolution and management conflict models. They felt that these approaches were blunted, viewing conflict merely as a problem in situ, in the case of CR, and mollified to unhealthy ends, in the case of CM. They further felt that conflict was too isolated, seemingly disconnected from larger issues both beneath and around it. Increasingly, they saw these approaches as treating a symptom, without getting to the underlying cause of the disease.

For the most part, the transformation folks agreed with the management camp that conflict can’t be prevented absolutely, but they also realized that “managing” conflict wasn’t enough and that “resolution” framed it too narrowly. Conflict transformation emerged as a response to these insights.

What Conflict Transformation is all about

Conflict Transformation starts with the premise that conflict is both natural and necessary — in life generally, and in relationships specifically, and it is a vital catalyst for change and growth. Without conflict, life would be an unbearable cavern of monotony and our relationships would be woefully superficial. CT affirms that conflict creates life and keeps everything moving. Rather than seeing conflict as a threat, a transformative approach views conflict as a valuable opportunity to expand our understanding of and deepen our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world. This opportunity shifts our attitude towards conflict from a negative, destructive orientation to a positive, constructive one — and this greatly improves our willingness to engage conflict.

Conflict Transformation starts with the premise that conflict is both natural and necessary — in life generally, and in relationships specifically, and it is a vital catalyst for change and growth.

Conflict Transformation also views peace differently than resolution and management approaches. CR and CM view peace as an “end-state” or a static state achieved by the absence of conflict or else the least amount possible, which allows everyone to “be done” or “move on” regardless of if they have to see (or live with) each other again. A transformative approach, on the other hand, sees peace as rooted in the quality of relationships, namely, that they are safe, respectful, equal in integrity, and open to change. What’s more, that it is a process which is ongoing, continuously evolving, and intentional in its efforts.

Diana Frances, Former President of the International Federations of Reconciliation refers to conflict as “Two plus ideas sharing a space.” In engaging conflict, for CT it’s all about relationships — understanding them, investing in them, and implementing “creative change” to sustain them. While a transformative approach recognizes that the content and substance of a dispute matters, it also doesn’t privilege it or focus on it exclusively. CT is also interested in seeing the less visible aspects of the relationships that are in dispute — in other words, going beneath and beyond the presenting problem to unearth emotions, dynamics, desires, and stories that are shaping how each person sees “the problem.”

CT is more than a set of techniques to fix an issue. CT is attitudinal skill — a way of looking and seeing. It provides a set of lenses that help us to make sense of conflict, see a fuller picture of conflict, and bring the meaning of conflict into sharper focus.

Sometimes a sweater on a bench is just that … other times, it’s not.

Returning to our conflicted couple.

It turned out that the guy in the story had lost his mother when he was 14 years old. She had been sick for years, and because his father often worked long hours, one of the teenager’s tasks became keeping the house clean. His mother had been a fastidious housekeeper, but when she became ill and couldn’t keep it up as she had, things slowly began to “pile up,” as he said, interestingly stated. Putting things away and keeping things organized was a way for him to have a modicum of control in a situation where it felt as though that was being stripped away daily.

This guy never realized how much this experience had impacted him until it unexpectedly came up in conversation. In response, the woman said she had always thought “he was a little OCD,” but it wasn’t until they lived together that she felt the weight of his hyper need for organization. And until she heard about his difficult experience as a boy, she could only see her partner as a nag who shamed her and treated her like a child, and who one day, out of the blue, became “some psycho” (her words) who hung her clothes all over the house. After this dialogue, she was able to view the situation differently, which created an empathetic response and shifted her perspective about leaving sweaters out.

The problem wasn’t the sweaters per se; it’s what they represented. The phone-alert, “manage it” approach didn’t work because the “problem” and “dysfunction” was without context. It was also more of a reminder of her partner’s “psycho-ness” and belittling response than a call to constructive, sustainable action. Now when she saw a pile of clothes on the bench, she also saw a grieving little boy who was desperate to hold onto the mother he was losing. And this image and “felt sense” was enough to motivate her to put them away.

This realization was also transformative for the guy. He’d always known he had a zealous, shall we say, response to mess, but he never knew why. All he knew was that when he saw it, he felt a surge of stress and, over time, experienced waves of anxiety. Because that emotional experience wasn’t particularly pleasant, he avoided it (and thinking about it) at all costs — that is, until some “problem” emerged that pushed his triggers and caused him to erupt like Vesuvius.

Through this conflict, he was able to find some real-time practices to relieve stress, which helped him to keep his emotional lava beneath the ground. It was also a good reminder that his partner wasn’t the devil or enemy; rather, she was simply human with a few eccentricities — like him. The situation further helped him to decide, with his partner in a calm way, just how many “homeless sweaters” was acceptable for both of them at any one time. “She needs accommodation too,” he said finally.

One of the keys to conflict transformation is shared investment in the relationship as much as the specific outcome.

Relationships matter

One of the keys to conflict transformation is shared investment in the relationship as much as the specific outcome. Despite their differences in needs and inclinations, this couple shared certain desires related to meaning, purpose, and value of their relationship that compelled them to continue to invest in one another. Shared investment requires the willingness and capacity to communicate — to exchange ideas, find common definitions, and together move towards solutions, not just “for now,” but for the long-haul. Dialogue — grounded in calm, flexible in form, open to opportunity, and sustained (in other words, not Vesuvius) — is how constructive, “transformative” change happens.

As we’ll see in the next column, part of dealing with conflict successfully is to determine the nature and importance of the relationship that is at stake in conflict. Are you in a long-term connection or is it a passing moment? How invested in this relationship are you and in what ways? How much investment is appropriate, given the circumstances — how much ought you invest? How do you determine your level of investment; what’s the criteria? These and other issues that we’ll explore in Part Three are critical to navigating conflict effectively. One issue in particular is how you personally respond to conflict — aka what is your “conflict style.” This is definitely one article you won’t want to miss!

Next up! “How Do You Respond to Conflict? — And What This Means for Your Relationships.”

*Don’t miss “Part One: You’ll Never Get Rid of Conflict, So Learn to Engage It Better”!

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.

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