Conflict with others does something to us, we can feel it stir us up and activate certain behaviours. What gets stirred up and why we react in certain ways is often a mystery. We all have different relationships with conflict. Some of us avoid it, others come out fighting, and only a few of us are able to skilfully harness the opportunity conflict presents to learn and grow. For most, it isn’t an easy experience, made harder still when arising at work, where more can be expected of us. Conflict, in any context, can be hugely destructive, stressful, and even violent. It is an inevitable part of human relations and how we react to conflict can dramatically impact on our personal wellbeing, alongside the wellbeing of our organisations.
The CBI estimates that conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year
The CBI estimates that conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days. I couldn’t find any research that put a pound note figure on how much conflict generates for the UK economy. My hunch is that it will also be in the billions. The fact is conflict can be good, or to paraphrase William Shakespeare it is neither good nor bad unless we think it so. When harnessed skilfully conflict can be an amazing catalyst for innovation and creativity. It can strengthen the connections between us and make individuals, teams and entire organisations stronger than they were before. Rather than see conflict as a bad thing that needs to be removed from corporate life, we could see it as the friction we need, not only to grow personally but also to grow our businesses.
The etymology of the word conflict is from the Latin, meaning to “strike together”, when it was used to refer to a “fight, battle or armed encounter”. It later evolved by the mid 15th Century to describe a “struggle or quarrel”. By 1875 we began to use the word to mean a “discord of action, feeling, or effect, clashing of opposed principles”. It wasn’t until 1859 that the psychological sense of the word was recorded to mean “incompatible urges in one person”, drawing on the 15th Century use of the word to describe an “internal mental or spiritual struggle” (against temptation). Thomas Porter (1996) defined conflict as:
“when a person is faced with a situation that threatens their sense of self worth or value”.
In this sense conflict is distinct from opposition, where people disagree or have opposing views that don’t involve a threat to a person’s sense of self-worth.
It is in these more recent definitions that the mystery of what happens to us in conflict begins to be solved. We seemed to get hooked by the words or actions of others, causing something to be jarred or triggered. Porter’s definition feels right and perhaps it is not only our sense of self-worth that is threatened but also our sense of who we are. From my own self-observed experience of conflict, I notice the jarring previously mentioned when some idea or model of myself, and how I think things should be, is challenged. It could be ideas like: “I am right” or “leaders do this and not that”. In this sense, the idea of how things should be and the reality of how things actually are strike together. This inner-conflict can then be projected out as behaviour, which can be problematic as certain behaviours may not always be helpful.
If our models for how things should be are too rigid, and we allow ourselves to become them, then these ideas can conflate with how we value ourselves. For example, someone might challenge an idea we have and, because we identify with the idea, we feel personally attacked. Our self-worth is being questioned, provoking a sense of threat and triggering a mechanical response from what is known as our reptilian brain. This response is characterised by fight, flight or freeze reaction – a type of programming that we have held onto as human kind evolved. The challenge is that these responses, coming out fighting, running away, or becoming stuck and unable to respond, are not leadership. They are unconscious responses we are not in control of as our mechanical programming takes over in order to manage the anxiety activated by inner conflict.
So, how can we manage conflict effectively?
If you accept that your reaction to conflict may be affected by ‘your stuff’ being triggered, then perhaps the best place to start is with the ‘stuff’ that is your responsibility. Executive Coach and blogger on leadership, Ali Schultz put it beautifully when she wrote:
If we don’t work on our stuff, our stuff will work on us. It will run our lives–and show up in our offices and relationships–until we take the reins of responsibility for our own well being.
This exploration of how other people trigger us is vital work. It is when we look at how we are getting stirred up by conflict, the hurt we feel, and the hurt we cause that we begin to own our ‘stuff’. Taking ownership is taking responsibility. In Transactional Analysis (TA) a process known as ‘track down’ is used. This starts with a ‘hurt’ that we experience and then the origin of that hurt is tracked down through our own personal history, until we come to the event where the hurt was first experienced. By bringing this experience into our awareness rather than leaving it in the shadows, we can see how it trips us up time after time.
The way it works is that our outer conditions (such as the conflict at work) trigger an archaic recording from childhood. This recording creates certain inner conditions like anger, anxiety or sadness, that stir us up and get us activated in some way. We then project or hurl out these emotions onto the other as a fight, flight or freeze response. By tracking down these behaviours, starting with how we feel hurt, we are able to see what is really going on within us and from that vantage point take responsibility for it. This means owning and accepting what has happened, seeing where our behaviour has come from, and viewing it through the lens of our Adult selves, rationally and lovingly. This is how we take the reins of not only our own wellbeing, but the conflictual transaction we are in. We can see we always have some responsibility in relation to the transaction, even if we can’t see it at first. From this new perspective, we are better able to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. We give up on models of how we think the world should be and instead look at the situation more even handedly, rationally, and in the present moment – not inhibited by ancient messages recorded in childhood that are no longer helpful.
What about the other person in the conflict?
Taking responsibility for what is yours is no guarantee that the other person, or people, in the conflict will do the same. Yet, it is a step in the right direction as you navigate the negotiation. When negotiation breaks down a third party or mediator can also be helpful. The job of the mediator is to be impartial, but not neutral, they’re on the side of a peaceful resolution. The process involves listening deeply to each party in an effort to help them see what is going on for them, both inside and out. The mediator will help people in conflict separate the facts from the feelings in order to better understand what their responsibility is and take ownership of it. When conflicts become entrenched it usually means that one or more parties are refusing to see their part in the conflict, what is getting in their way and subsequently stopping them from reconnecting with each other. It is by reconnecting with others, seeing their humanity and not just their position in the dispute, that allows us to reconnect with the shared interest of finding the creative solution hiding within diverging views. Managing conflict is an inside job and and requires us to look into our hearts and ask the question: what is my responsibility in all of this? Without asking this question individuals, teams, and entire organisations can become stuck – costing billions. By finding the courage to look inside, we can meet others and find a better way for both.