Rob Cairns - Conflict Resolution

Conflict - My Map
of the Territory

To begin with I’d like to make it clear that this is my map, and I do not present it as the truth on the subject, but rather my truth. This is how I see it. These are the important components in my understanding of what conflict is, and where it fits in the grand scheme of things. I welcome your feedback about this article, and acknowledge that I still have much to learn.

Conflict and Personal Development

Learning and personal development are intimately connected with conflict in my opinion. I think it could almost be said that growth or personal development is not possible without resolving some form of conflict. Unfortunately the reverse is not true in my experience. A great deal of conflict is possible without any attendant growth whatsoever.

I believe the opportunity for growth is present in every conflict. Making the most of this opportunity seems like a worthy goal to me. However, it can be difficult to bring ourselves willingly to this challenge. Let's face it, growth has a bad reputation in our culture. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that “ignorance is bliss.” Who among us wants the added responsibility (or if you prefer, response ability) that higher levels of consciousness development bring?

I believe that the way each person addresses conflict plays a significant role in their continuing personal development. See Styles for Communicating in Conflict for an overview of 5 distinct styles for communicating in conflict that have been identified and validated empirically. Some of us learn early in life to avoid conflict as much as possible, and I believe this can have tragic results for our development.

The Cultural Context of Conflict

I think our education system is partly responsible for the difficulty we find ourselves in. Its focus seems to be almost entirely on developing knowledge of facts, data, and techniques, and obedience to authority. It seems to place very little importance on developing the consciousness, interior landscape, or depth of the individual. This may be a legacy of the scientific revolution in which only those things that could be measured objectively were considered worthy of study, and subjective experience was seen at best as unimportant, and at worst as non-existent. I recall David Suzuki speaking at a conference of Human Resources Professionals that I attended while I was still a student in University in the 1980’s. His plenary presentation, perhaps intended to generate controversy, emphasized his belief (at that time) that none of the Social Sciences could actually be said to involve any “science.”

By the time students graduate from high school today, many of them seem to me to have lost their thirst for personal growth and development entirely. They have learned not to overtly question authority, not to trust their own sense of things, and to avoid conflict by disclosing as little of themselves and their subjective experience as possible, particularly to those in authority positions (eg. parents, teachers). In some cases, they may even have lost touch with their own feelings and needs to a great extent. This is a modern tragedy, and one with significant consequences for our quality of life as a society.

In addition, most adults in our culture today have been exposed since infancy to a relentless stream of television content that emphasizes judgmental ideas of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, better and worse, etc. This teaches them to judge others as their first response to conflict. If someone disagrees with you, it is likely because they are a bad guy, or maybe they’re just plain wrong. Seen through this lens, it’s easy to understand why so many of us try to resolve conflict by “educating” the other party about how they’ve gone wrong, rather than by trying to understand and work with their perspective, feelings, and needs. Disagreement without blame attached to it seems to be rare indeed in today’s workplaces, courtrooms, and political debates. This then, is a very brief overview of the cultural context within which conflict occurs.

The Individual/Person in Conflict

Within this context we have individuals with varying degrees of consciousness development. When I was a student in University it was thought that development of consciousness ended with adulthood. Today it is understood that development can continue through adulthood, and there are many distinct levels of consciousness and awareness possible in the adult years.

Robert Kegan provides an overview of research done and a model for adult consciousness development in his books “The Evolving Self” and “In Over Our Heads, The Mental Demands of Modern Life.” Ken Wilber’s book “Integral Psychology” is also instructive. See Adult Consciousness Development for a brief overview of this work.

What ongoing development of consciousness means in practice is that we have people with completely different world views, and differences in the development of moral, affective, cognitive, spiritual, and interpersonal dimensions interacting with each other every day. It should not come as a surprise that they frequently fail to understand each other. In addition, our multicultural society contains a more diverse range of values, beliefs, and ways of being in the world than we have had to cope with at any previous time in history.

The Interpersonal Dimension of Conflict

So what’s going on when conflict occurs? The most useful model I have come across is described in a book called “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg. This approach has 4 components:

  1. In his book, Mr. Rosenberg provides a (partial) list of the Universal Human Needs that we are all seeking to meet through our actions and choices in life. These include our needs for autonomy, self-worth, meaning, community, consideration, respect, trust, support, understanding, love, order, peace, air, food,… you get the idea. It’s a long list, and every one of us has all of these needs. What creates problems between us is that our strategies for meeting these needs can be more or less successful. When we attempt to meet our own needs at the expense of others’ it can have unforeseen consequences. It can also be difficult to identify which needs are motivating us at any given moment. This leads to a discussion of the critical role that feelings play in the NVC model.
  2. Feelings are the sign posts that point to the needs that either are or are not being met. If you’re feeling angry, it is likely because your need for respect (or support, or consideration, or…) is not being met. It is through our feelings that we come to understand what’s at stake in any given conflict – which needs are not being met on each side. They can be used to arrive at clarity, and to provide the tools for determining whether, and to what extent a given solution to the problem will work for us both. Unfortunately, in our culture we have a tendency to confuse our feelings and thoughts as for example in the statement “I feel you are not doing your share.” In addition to the predictable negative effect on the other party, valuable information is lost when we do this. In addition there is a tendency, particularly at lower levels of development, to confuse the origins of our feelings. No one else can make us feel the way we do. Our feelings are our own, and result from our sense of whether our needs are, or are not being met in a given situation. Others can be the stimulus, but never the cause of our feelings. Different people can (and frequently do) react to the same stimulus with entirely different feelings.
  3. A third key concept from the NVC model is objective observations. We have a tendency to mix evaluations and judgments in with our observations in our culture, and again, this can have a chilling effect on our efforts to resolve conflict. Skill at separating the two comes with practice and, I would suggest, with consciousness development. When we combine the two, we make it very unlikely that the other party will hear our intended message. Instead, they are likely to hear criticism and react defensively. For example, if I told you that you talked too much during meetings, how would you likely react? If I said instead that when you told long stories about personal events from your life during meetings I felt frustrated because I needed to use the meeting time more effectively, would it be easier to hear? How about if I said, ”In our meeting yesterday you spoke for over 5 minutes about a conversation you had with your spouse on your way to work, and I was unable to see the connection between your story and the subject at hand?” Each of these is a progressively more objective, less evaluative description, and my belief is that they are less likely to provoke a defensive response as we move down the chain. Failure to be objective in our observations is the most common cause of failure in efforts to resolve conflict in my experience.
  4. The final piece of the NVC model is distinguishing between demands and requests, and learning to replace the former with the later in our everyday usage. The key difference between the two lies not so much in how they are phrased, but in how you respond if the other person says no to your request.

If you are upset or angered by this response, that was actually a demand. If it was a request, it wouldn’t matter if they said no, because it was only one possible way to meet your needs, and you wouldn’t have wanted them to agree unless it also met their needs anyway. A “no” in this case simply opens the door to exploring other solutions that can meet both parties’ needs. In NVC we recognize that the long term consequences of meeting our own needs at others’ expense are not in our best interest. We seek solutions that meet everyone’s needs, not because it’s morally better to do so, but because we recognize that this is the only way to meet our own needs (for connection, community, support, love, etc.) fully. Of course it is also possible to err in the other direction – by accommodating those around you and meeting their needs in preference to your own - and this is also an unsuccessful strategy in the long term.

Mediation with all of the above in mind offers the possibility of a fresh and lasting approach to any conflict (however entrenched), and maybe a little personal growth and development along the way.

If you think your organization could benefit from the services of a conflict resolution specialist, contact me.

fence around a field

Boundaries - without them, there can be no organization.