What is conflict and why deal with it?

Conflict happens when two or more people have seemingly incompatible opinions, values or needs. It happens in every kind and size of group. It happens between friends, lovers, in affinity groups, in large campaigns and in international networks. Read the first sentence of this paragraph again and you’ll see that it’s unavoidable. When two or more people get to know each other they will discover areas where they have different opinions about what’s the best thing to do and how to do it.

Conflict isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity

Conflict doesn’t mean that a relationship break-up is inevitable, or someone has to lose. It doesn’t even necessarily mean making huge concessions for each other. We invite you to see conflict not as a problem, but as an opportunity to make positive changes that will make life better for all involved in the long run. That’s not to say it’s easy in the short term.

Understanding conflict takes awareness, working with it takes practice. Developing a healthy approach to conflict is like learning how to maintain a bicycle. If you regularly oil the chain and adjust the brakes, you can avoid major problems, but you will need to learn the skills to do these things, and also the awareness of when they need doing.

Conflict is a natural part of being human – it happens in every shape and size of group.

From a little niggle to a crisis

While a difference of opinion in itself is unavoidable, we have much more control over what we do about this difference in opinion. This is the art of dealing with conflict – identifying it early enough and knowing when and how best to deal with it.

A series of minor incidents can build up over time and escalate into something major. You might find yourself in a huge row, which appears to have come out of nowhere. By sharpening our awareness, we can pick up on more subtle clues, and deal with conflict early on. It’s like watching a pot of boiling soup on the stove. If you leave the lid on, eventually the soup will boil over. If you turn the heat down when steam is starting to escape, then you could eat tasty soup and avoid a big mess.

The five stages of conflict

This section is adapted from work by the Conflict Resolution Network.

The development of a conflict can be divided into five stages as it escalates from a minor discomfort to a major crisis:

  1. Discomfort
  2. Incident
  3. Misunderstanding
  4. Tension
  5. Crisis

1. Discomfort

A little niggle that tells you a conflict might be brewing. You might not be able to put your finger on any hard facts beyond a feeling of discomfort. It could be a small habit that you feel annoyed by.

Whenever the group goes to the pub, Sara directs the conversation towards talking about the next action. Tomas leaves the pub early, wishing they could spend time socialising and getting to know each other better.

2. Incident

A minor clue that acts as evidence of the growing conflict. It could be a short, sharp exchange, or a visible expression of the conflict.

The group is planning an action together, Sara ignores or counters Tomas’ suggestions about team building, which leaves Tomas feeling frustrated. Sara notices Tomas’ frustration, but doesn’t do anything about it.

3. Misunderstanding

The situation has escalated to a degree that one or both parties have developed false assumptions about the other.

Tomas thinks Sara doesn’t care about helping the group to grow stronger. Sara thinks Tomas more interested in socialising than making real change happen.

4. Tension

By this point there has probably been a communication breakdown and emotions are running high. It’s harder to hold the conflict in, and it bursts through the silence. The clues here are much more obvious. This could be an argument, an emotional outburst, or out-of-character behaviour.

After the action, Tomas calls a meeting to debrief. Sara quickly turns the discussion towards a potential next action. Tomas shouts “Sara! Just cool it! Let’s just talk through how this action went before rushing on to the next one!” Sara looks stunned. She opens her eyes wide, slowly shakes her head, and walks out of the meeting, slamming the door behind her.

5. Crisis

This is the breaking point for the relationship. By this stage all communication will focus on the conflict. The situation may get violent.

Sara writes an email to the group, saying “I’m leaving the group. See you around.”

Why deal with conflict?

In the long run, there’s no way round it. In the short term, humans have developed some very sophisticated ways of avoiding it. We pretend its not there, hope it’ll go away, change the subject, pretend we’re imagining it. This method rarely succeeds at getting us anywhere other than stuck. Avoiding conflict is like ignoring a small child who needs the toilet. It’ll just get messy, and create another set of problems to deal with that we may be even less prepared for.

So, at some point down the line we’ll have to deal with it. Does this sound stressful? Can you already feel a bead of sweat quivering on your brow? Are you now considering avoiding reading this guide, to temporarily put off this stress? Hang on! There are immense benefits to understanding and working through our conflicts.

Learning skills for working through conflict shows respect. By stepping back to see another point of view, by taking the time to communicate about difficult topics, we’re showing care and compassion for those around us. We’re showing that relationships are important, they are a powerful resource, and worth investing our time and energy in. Dealing with conflict will help us build stronger groups and be more effective in bringing about social change.

Avoiding conflict is like ignoring a small child who needs the toilet. It’ll just get messy…

Understanding our conflicts and working through them can be a deeply empowering process for everyone involved. It can be hugely energising to find a way to connect with people you have a conflict with, and find a way through the conflict that everyone can live with instead of pretending it’s not there. Imagine you’re part of a group where people communicate honestly with each other, where everyone knows their own feelings, where there is a sincere desire to understand differences between people in the group, and to find solutions that are genuinely satisfactory for everyone.

Groups with a healthy approach to conflict will be better prepared to go the long haul together, and are better able to effectively bring about social change. Clear communication and trust for each other enable groups to make better decisions which takes into account more points of view. It also saves the time and energy that is sometimes spent on avoiding conflict.

We can also see working through our conflicts as skilling ourselves up for an uncertain future. If we want to build a stronger and more supportive society for insecure times, we need to develop the skills to work collaboratively.

Conflict Resolution Network,
PO Box 1016 Chatswood, NSW 2057,
Australia, Website www.crnhq.org
Ph +61 2 9419 8500 Fax +61 2 9413 1148.
Email [email protected]