Unresolved conflict can have a major negative impact on staff morale, creativity and productivity. But conflict can also be a springboard for creating more effective and efficient systems, procedures and ways of working and communicating as well as a more cohesive team, a more engaged workforce.
Conflict remains unresolved when it is approached in one or both of the following ways:
Conflict as a competition – the energy goes into proving who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ and even to the further step of establishing who is ‘bad’ and who is ‘good’.
Conflict as a problem to be avoided – the energy goes into activities such as rescheduling of rotas to avoid the other person, or arrangements are made by others to prevent those in dispute from crossing paths, to miss meetings or go to different venues when it is known where ‘the other person’ is likely to be. To speak about a problem to others but not with the person concerned.
Both of these responses are entirely natural – they are like the ‘fight or flight’ response respectively. But they don’t resolve conflict. What matters when involved in an unresolved conflict is, can we recognise we are doing one or both of the above? When we have acknowledged our own part in this we can start to look for opportunity within the conflict, even if we are still inclined towards competing or avoiding in the situation. It’s very hard to switch off the fight or flight response, but we don’t have to do that before we can use conflict as an opportunity.
'Conflict is the beginning of consciousness’ said M. Esther Harding, the Psychoanalyst and associate of Carl Jung. Conflict helps us to ‘wake up’ and realize that something is not quite right, something isn’t working. We can shout and scream about it not being right and blame someone but ultimately it doesn’t change anything. We can go back to sleep and wish it wasn’t how it is – but that doesn’t change anything either. Or, we can use the awakening to the conflict as an opportunity for creative change, for improvement.
At CAOS Conflict Management we talk about the ‘3 Cheers for Conflict’. These are the areas of opportunity present within any conflict and one or more of them is always created in the resolution of any conflict situation.
The ‘3 Cheers for conflict’ are:
Learning – about the situation – we decide to do something differently to how we have been doing things, either in the present situation or we make changes for future situations. This may include procedural, policy changes, it may mean new working practices, it may mean different ways of communicating, different incentive schemes, etc.
Connection – with the other person/people - we acknowledge the validity of their point of view without having to agree with it. In a competitive approach to conflict this is considered suicide as it could indicate some ‘giving in’, that we may not have the ‘only answer’ but just one answer to the situation, we may not have the ‘right’ view but simply a different view. Connection allows us to stop devoting time to defeating another person or group but to work with the useful information that says ‘there are many ways of interpreting this’ and we may need to create a viewpoint that is more easily shared. Or we may need to find ways of accommodating the fact that there are different perspectives on the situation we have previously fallen out over. But most importantly, we have stopped competing to try to ‘win’. This ‘cheer for conflict’ is particularly relevant in promoting effective teamwork.
Insight – about ourselves - we observe our own responses in the situation - anger, fear, intimidation, aggression, passivity etc. - and consider how we can support ourselves in the present, and future, situations in order to respond more constructively, to feel more comfortable in the situation. We may decide on Conflict Coaching, Counselling, mediation etc. or may simply take time to look after ourselves more effectively. In most unresolved conflicts, people ‘lose touch with themselves’ and their own needs because of the focus on the other person and what they are doing. Insight brings us back to ourselves and our own need for support in order to be more effective in our work environment and in our lives generally.
So, even while still competing or avoiding within an unresolved conflict, if we can step back and acknowledge where we are doing either or both, we can then look for opportunities for Learning, Connection and Insight. As we start to create these from the ‘wreckage’ of the present situation, the conflict moves closer and closer to resolution, even if only for ourselves, if the other person is not looking for opportunities and is still competing or avoiding. But our own openness to learning and change makes it much more likely we will respond to the other person in a way that lessens their need to compete or avoid.
"It only takes one person to end a war, and you're the one. What a perfect set up!" - Byron Katie