"Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence." ~ Dorothy Thompson
Recently I was giving a talk on conscious conflict management. One of the attendees, a management consultant, said that he had eradicated conflict from one of his client organizations. His point was that conflict was intrinsically bad and that therefore there could be no need for conscious conflict management.
Semantics is the study of meaning. The meaning of words has a significant impact on the way people communicate and the nature of their conflicts. If we ignore the issue by writing off semantics as being petty, we run the risk of misunderstanding one another and engaging in unnecessary conflicts (or disputes or disagreements, if you don't like the word conflict).
Conflict is defined as "A state of open, often prolonged fighting; a battle or war. 2. A state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or interests; a clash" in the Free Dictionary and "Friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities" in the Business Dictionary. The Office of Quality Improvement & Office of Human Resource development of the U. of Wisconsin defines conflict as a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns."
The Office goes on to say that conflict is normal. In my book on Managing Conflict I take it a step further and say that disagreement among parties over ideas or interests is a necessary means for reaching optimal outcomes, whether they are plans, designs or what movie to go to. We need healthy conflict to compare ideas and either pick the best ones or merge them to synthesize new and better ones.
Conflict can be useful or not depending on how it is handled. If the parties can overcome their attachment to winning they can dialogue and explore their common goals, their perceptions, the meanings of their words, as well as their differences. Then conflict becomes a means for arriving at resolutions that can often satisfy all the conflicting parties.
But, let's go back to the guy in the class who thinks conflict is bad. We can work with that by exploring to find a common language. There is no need to argue over semantics. You can explore a bit with questions like, "Do you agree that disagreements occur naturally when people work or live together?" If the guy says "No, in a healthy environment there should be no disagreements" then you would have to move on to exploring why he would think that. You'd quickly find that he has bought into a model or belief that has nothing to do with reality. Finding that, you can decide whether to continue the discussion or step out and agree to disagree.
If you find another word to express a mutually understood meaning there can be a dialogue over ideas instead of the words. Replace conflict with a word like dispute or disagreement and move on into the real issue of how to effectively deal with situations in which people have opposing ideas.
Whether in a work team or couple, ideally the parties will be able to step back from their positions long enough to see the bigger picture and care enough about their long term relationship to go beyond the immediate need to win. Then the opposing parties join together to face the conflict rather than one another. Facing the conflict they discover a resolution that meets the needs of the situation.
© 2013 Pitagorsky Consulting