Most people I talk to pride themselves on their first inclination and great ability to walk away from conflict or serious disagreement. Yet, when I ask about a conflict they walked away from, I’m often struck by the vivid detail they recall about the incident. And then I’m struck by the surge of strong emotion that follows for them. Sometimes these are disagreements or confrontations that date back a long time, and yet the emotion is still right there: in the eyes; the voice; the shoulders; the hands. It isn’t always anger. Very often it is wistful: full of regret and self-recrimination and pain. Sometimes keeping your mouth shut and walking away IS the right thing to do, but often the avoidance of the short-term stress of facing up to the disagreement does invisible long-term damage to one’s mental health.
The brain is a strange organ. It has a way of bringing up long-forgotten unresolved issues when we think we least need to be reminded of them. Before I studied conflict and techniques for resolving conflict, I had perhaps half a dozen such memories that would at times, for no apparent reason, vividly present themselves at centre-stage in my mind, causing my blood to run cold even as my pulse would race and send a deep crimson flush to my cheeks, sometimes waking me at 4 am, sometimes in the middle of a meeting.
I keep learning the benefits of choosing how to respond to a conflict situation. I learnt the truth that there is no single objective truth; just a range of perspectives. I also learnt the healing power of truth and reconciliation. The peace of mind that comes from taking time to understand and to be understood is one of the greatest destressors I have ever come across. It is a cornerstone for good mental health.
This isn’t a newly invented “app”: aboriginal societies and the major world religions know the value of dialog and creating common understanding. Unfortunately it is a piece of wisdom that is constantly lost as we juggle our complex modern lives, and so we keep on needing reminders: Walking away solves nothing. Hence, our brains will not let our unresolved conflicts rest. At a deeply fundamental level, common to all humans, according to we know that unresolved conflicts are bad for us. We have deep-seated desires for revenge, fairness, good self-image, judging others, and defending our psyche. And so, we don’t let go, much as we’d like to.
Then of course there’s timing and willingness. Sometimes when I’m ready to make amends the other person isn’t ready to hear me out. I may have tried too late, or too early. The rejection of an attempt at making an amend, or getting to the heart of a conflict so that we can come up with a solution, triggers another predictable response: well then, the hell with you. I knew I was right. I knew it was a waste of time. You’re just a loser; I was right. And if they come to me first, with THEIR amend, well, then, doesn’t it feel a little bit like a victory? The other guy blinked first, hey? And so it goes. The poison continues.
Conflict resolution is a tough business.
And then, I
discovered this piece below as I was exploring my blog notes today. I wrote it some time ago for a forgotten event. It is food for thought if you’re responsible for conflict resolution in the workplace. The knock-on effect of good workplace dispute resolution is measurable in dollars and cents.
In the workplace unresolved workplace and personal conflicts manifest themselves in patterns of disengagement and cynicism; absenteeism and presenteeism; lower productivity with higher rates of
error and accidents; malicious compliance and sabotage. In the Dana Measure of Financial cost of
Organisational Conflict (2001) it is reported that “chronic unresolved conflict” is the cause of 50% of departures from a job (resignation or internal transfers). In a work ethos where the emphasis is on the urgent rather than on what’s important an unresolved conflict is one less thing on the action plan: it goes away, until it manifests itself in a resignation of a key staff member or an accident through
absent-mindedness, when it becomes urgent again, in a completely different guise: we deal with it and don’t see the connection: inattention to what had been important (the conflict) triggers one or several unplanned, unbudgeted for urgent actions. And so managers keep busy fighting fires.