We’ve been working with a client for some time now and the moment has arrived to open up the subject of how to deal with conflict. We wait to do this because we want the team to grow their awareness and capacity for working together before jumping into a discussion about a part of their work that is, for many an emotionally charged topic.
Each of us has a relationship to conflict. We react differently when experiencing conflict; we behave differently when faced with conflict. Why is this? I believe that conflict arises because of a discrepancy between competing realities. Problems exist between us because my reality isn’t yours and vice versa. We all assign meaning to things, events, and experiences. Because we are unique, our meanings are unique. We may share an experience, but we assign different meaning to the experience. When the difference is great, the result can be conflict.
When it comes to our relationship to conflict we each have a primary tendency. We either confront conflict and deal with it head on or we avoid conflict at almost any cost. This tendency to confront or avoid conflict is driven by what we believe about conflict and the imagined consequences of either confronting or avoiding it. Do I see conflict as good or bad? Threatening or not? Whatever we believe, we have a deep and powerful commitment to that belief. We probably have memories of experiences that support our belief. Our commitment to our belief about conflict may be in direct contradiction with a belief around wanting to drive a business objective forward successfully. Robert Kegan in his writing posits this idea of “competing commitments.”
To grow our capacity to handle conflicts in an appropriate manner, we want to engage in some self-reflection on our beliefs about conflict and what happens in conflict (specifically, what happens to me in conflict). This self-reflection evokes greater awareness of our competing commitments.
We wait to have a conversation about conflict to allow for relationships to form and grow within the team so that the team can stay present to the conversation on conflict and on the actual conflicts that may exist within the team and among and between team members. We are driving toward a shift in awareness. Shifts in behavior aren’t sustained without shifts in knowing what is driving the behavior. Shifts in knowing – greater self-awareness – lead to real, lasting change. Understanding our relationship to conflict is one step toward being able to lead others with greater effectiveness.