from Hamburg, Germany
Conflict Management 101
Conflict is a tricky word and varies a lot from culture to culture. In some cultures “pursuing conflict” is a sign of engagement with others and in other cultures, conflict is avoided at all costs. Again, in some cultures, conflict can mean anything as small as a disagreement and in other cultures, it is only used for heavily escalated situations. Whatever it is, a conflict will sooner or later be present in our lives in one form or another. So, before jumping into managing conflict and how to create a safe space where conflict can be useful, I would like to first define it:
Any disagreement is considered a conflict in these articles, no matter how small it may be. A conflict happens because of something that is scarce and two or multiple parties are disputing ownership (also known as “property rights”) over whatever is the scarce object in focus.
I will try to convince you that even if you are living in a culture that might disapprove of conflict, it can still have positive aspects. One of the most useful sides of a conflict is the fact that one or multiple parties see the world differently. If those views are focused away from “who is right” to “combining different views in order to solve the challenge”, then there is something to be gained. Disagreements widen our perspectives by forcing us in different perspectives, on the contrary, agreement and consensus narrow it down. If you are further interested in widening or narrowing one’s perspective, I suggest googling “narrow framing cognitive bias” or “what we see is all there is”.
Now that I have convinced you at least that there might be something useful coming from a conflicting situation, let me introduce you to a conflict spectrum on which all different types of conflict live.
If we try to put all various levels of conflict escalation on a line from least to most aggressive, we would get a line ranging from passive aggression to open (or active if you want) aggression.
Passive aggression means that on the surface everything is OK, but secretly there is a problem between the parties. They might even sabotage each other, as long as it is not visible or traceable, or manipulate the other party in a situation that is harmful to them. “We could not possibly know that it would be bad for them, could we?” Since physical or open conflict is often considered unprofessional in the business world (and most of the organizations), this is a dominant type of conflict today.
As mentioned before, on the opposite end of the spectrum lays open conflict, quite often in the form of physical aggression. “Gloves are off one” would say in Europe. Wars are one of the extreme cases of this type of conflict. The fundamental difference between physical and passive aggression is that in the passive case the other party, as well as the immediate environment, might not even know that there is a conflict.
So how does this help us on our journey towards safe and productive conflict? Well, it builds sort of a map for us. In order to have a productive and safe conflict, it must not be at either end of the spectrum. And that is hard. Why? Well, in short, because of nature 🙂 . In order to make it sound a bit more scientific, I will borrow some ideas from systems theory, which state that any system is generally stable by itself only when it is behavior is in the extremes. And, any effort to prevent a system to go to the extreme requires action or energy to move it away from this natural tendency. In other words, it is easy to always be very passive or physically aggressive. There is no decision to be made. If we are physically aggressive towards someone, that means every time we have an opportunity, “we hit them”. No thinking required.
- In order for conflict to be productive, it should be in the middle of the spectrum and not towards the extremes that is passive or physical aggression.
- Keeping the conflict in the middle is hard since the conflict will have a natural tendency to go to either extreme. It means we need to make an effort to keep it in the middle.
I would also like to add a third point: If we encounter a conflict on either end (or closer to the end compared to the middle), we need to “push it” towards the middle in order to bring it into the productive space. Yes, that means (and I have done it plenty of times) if I am resolving a conflict as a mediator and I find the conflicting parties to be passive aggressive towards each other, my first task is to bring the conflict to light which often means sparking it (in a controlled environment). Therefore, in that case, I am being openly aggressive by being for example provocative. On the other hand, that also means if I find conflicting parties openly aggressive (not necessarily physically), my first task is to de-escalate the situation. One of the usual methods is by acknowledging the emotions (and right to emotions) of an aggressive person or aggressive people. An example may be: “I see that this situation is unsettling for you, and that is fine, please help me to understand you.” What I do not do (and neither should you), is to say something like “do not be so emotional / angry”, as this will only make the other person feel misunderstood, denied of emotions (by you) that they (rightfully) feel, and will escalate the situation further by making you now an active part of the conflict (which you obviously should avoid).
Everything about the conflict spectrum is visualized on this photo:
- Different cultures have different attitudes towards conflict (and that is absolutely fine).
- Nevertheless, conflict, if managed, can be useful.
- Conflicts will always happen no matter how much the culture, or you, try to avoid it.
- We can use a conflict spectrum to assess where the parties in the conflict are (valid also if we are ourselves in conflict).
- We try to push the conflict situation towards the middle of the spectrum by escalating in the case of passive aggressiveness or de-escalating in the case of open aggressiveness.
This is enough for the first part. If you want to try an exercise before reading the next of these articles, I have one for you.
Analyze the last conflict you had (no matter if it is already resolved). Was it a passive aggressive one or an openly aggressive one? What have you done (if anything) to move it towards the middle?
If you want, please discuss your situation in the comments. I read them regularly and would gladly (if time permits) contribute to your thoughts.
Until the next time, take care of yourself!