How can conflict be a good thing? In the first blog in this series I spoke about how most of us try to avoid conflict (myself included). Conflict situations make us uncomfortable. The vast majority of us view it as a negative thing.
But I think we would all agree that it is impossible to get through life without encountering it. In fact most of us encounter a situation of conflict on a daily basis. Be it in our personal relationships, our work lives, in a queue at the airport, driving home in heavy traffic on a rainy Tuesday evening… Conflict is an unavoidable fact of life.
It is interesting then that we are so surprised when we encounter it. Often fearful. Most of us are ill-equipped to cope with conflict. Our go-to response is usually anger or hurt, both negative feelings. We feel threatened. Naturally we try to avoid these negative responses. But what if these negative feelings could be transformed into more positive responses? What if we accepted that the emergence of conflict is a normal part of life and developed the skills to deal with it in a more constructive way?
If we engage with the conflict issue and learn something valuable in the process, then we make conflict a positive thing.
Take a disagreement between a couple as an example. If a conflict arises, generally both parties will be very aware of it. There is a palpable sense of awkwardness to usually easy interactions; a feeling of unease; something not quite right. Communication becomes superficial or terse. Or worse – silence reigns.
Once the couple both realise they are in a conflict situation, it is what they do next that really matters. They must acknowledge that a conflict exists. Only when conflicts are brought out into the open, do they have the chance of being dealt with effectively.
Managing conflict effectively requires skills. Skills that sadly are not usually taught to our children at school. But with these skills, the idea of facing conflicts with others is not nearly so daunting, and in fact can be stimulating and exciting. Kenneth Kaye says that ‘if we manage conflict constructively, we harness its energy for creativity and development’.
Dialogue is the key element in constructive conflict resolution. Listening with empathy to another’s feelings and beliefs is not easy. But it is fundamental to effective communication. Practically speaking, this means trying to imagine what it feels like to be in the other person’s shoes at that moment and then reflecting what you experience back to them to check whether you understand their feelings correctly. This can be very difficult to do especially when you have strong opposing views. But it is possible when both parties are truly committed to understanding. Something amazing happens when people feel understood and accepted at a deep level. Their need to hold onto their preconceived solution to the conflict often dissipates. And therein is the shift in perception and the key to unlocking the conflict.
It is magical to watch this process happen, even more incredible to experience it first-hand. So the next time you get that feeling of unease at the emergence of a disagreement with your partner or work colleague – don’t shy away from it. Take it as an opportunity for self development, a chance to deepen and strengthen your relationships.
This is the third and final blog in my series reflecting on conflict. The views here are my own and based on personal and professional experience dealing with conflict over the last 10 years.