How to Use Conflict As An Opportunity

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Conflict is frequently seen as a 'bad thing' and often referred to as something to be avoided or prevented. From the perspective of mediation and conflict coaching this is an approach to conflict that misses the enormous opportunity that exists within any difficult situation, relationship breakdown or other unresolved conflict. When we provide training in mediation or other conflict management skills we do an activity which explores trainees' associations with the word 'conflict'. Words such as war, violence, stress, argument, resentment, anger, sadness etc. will be the main ones that arise indicating the negative associations people frequently have with the word. However from the perspective of mediation, these are the responses to, or outcomes of, unresolved conflict.
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Occasionally a word such as opportunity, challenge, creativity will arise and such associations indicate a recognition of the potential within conflict for positive growth and change. What matters in any situation of conflict is how it is responded to and this is what leads to there being a useful, constructive, effective, positive outcome or a destructive, ineffective, negative outcome. But the conflict just 'is'. It isn't in itself negative or positive, it just happens. The consequence of its existence is determined by how it is dealt with once it arises. The model we use at CAOS Conflict Management to describe an effective response to conflict is called the '3-Cheers for Conflict' - Learning, Connection and Insight. These are the useful outcomes that arise from resolving a conflict, leading to positive, useful change and growth.

Learning is a change in how things are done, practical changes created in recognition that how something has been done is not working. So for example, we may take a different route to work when we realise that a present route is now subject to traffic delays, or we may play music at a different time if we find out that our neighbour needs to sleep at that time due to being on an early shift the next day, or we may use a different room for an activity when we find that the present room is not suitable for the activity.

Connection occurs when we understand another person's point of view about something we are having difficulty over, without feeling we have to agree with it. In unresolved conflict we tend to dismiss others' views as crazy or unreasonable or maliciously motivated and so we close ourselves off from even listening to them or trying to understand them. With Connection we understand why someone sees things the way they do and how that influences their actions and so we can do things differently in the future in ways that accommodate that other perspective (if we don't want to keep falling out with the other person and spend more time arguing than getting on with the activity we see differently)

Insight is an understanding of ourselves. We acknowledge our difficult feelings in a situation and look to find ways of supporting ourselves in ways that acknowledge their presence and if possible in reducing the discomfort we feel. So for example we may find a colleague's shouting to be intimidating. We can take heed of how we feel about it without having to condemn them for shouting (the latter being a response that is more likely to escalate a conflict) and then make a considered decision about how we might address the issue in a way that supports us. We may decide to speak to the colleague and ask them not to shout, or if that is not comfortable for us, we may decide to look at why we feel intimidated when they shout to reconsider whether it is something we can see differently, not as threatening or upsetting but in a way that is less destructive towards us. We may look to see if others are also intimidated and if not, find out how they view it in a way that means they are more able to accept it. Any such actions arise from Insight, an acknowledgement to ourselves of our difficult feelings and a commitment to support ourselves with those feelings without needing to condemn or 'battle' with, or avoid others.

A resolved conflict may include any one or more of the above features, but the point is, the conflict is always an opportunity to create a more constructive way forward rather than a situation that inevitably escalates to a stressful competition to be proved right, or a situation in which we have to avoid people to prevent a difficult interaction.

Adopting this approach to conflict as an opportunity has implications for complaints resolution, workplace creativity and organisational learning, community cohesion and loving family interaction. "Conflict is the beginning of consciousness" said Mary Esther Harding, an associate of Carl Jung. It awakens to the need for change. Once we recognise the need, it is up to us to respond in a way that is as constructive as possible, irrespective of the responses of others.

Please share any comments or views or questions you have about this article in the comments section below….

Alan Sharland is Director of CAOS Conflict Management a Mediation, Conflict Coaching and Conflict Management provider organisation based in London, UK.


About

Alan Sharland is Director of CAOS Conflict Management and has been a mediator and trainer in conflict management skills for 21 years.

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