Recipe for Conflict
A minimum of two people and an issue on which they disagree.
Add to the recipe the factors that the people each bring into the relationship:
Values, Culture & Triggers
Our values are what we judge to be important in life: our personal principles. The rules we live by. They typically originate in our culture but over time our values may shift as our relationship with our culture shifts (e.g. young adults and their elderly parents may share a culture but have very different values as regards to how kids are raised; dealing with garbage; ethnic diversity, and so on).
“Culture is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.”
Triggers: What sets you off causes a quick change in your mood/attitude, rooted often in values or cultural practices you hold dear would be called a trigger. For example a South African grandmother whose half-Japanese grandson slurps his tea. Tea slurping is what one does in Japanese culture. Not so in ‘polite society’ in South Africa.
Conflict Style & Skill Level
The Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict styles is a helpful tool to gain insight into one’s natural (first instinctual) responses to a conflict situation. Having insight into one’s conflict management style is a starting point in developing conflict competence.
- Knowing how to adapt one’s response to a given conflict situation is an essential element of being competent in conflict management.
- Recognition of personal tendency not to listen actively (‘listen to understand’ vs. ‘listen for an opportunity to retort’)
- Recognition of one’s own emotional state and the role it plays in increasing or decreasing the heat.
- Knowing what your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement is.
- Knowing that a conflict well resolved is more than just fixing the problem: it forms the foundation for a stronger relationship built on deeper understanding.
- Understanding the emotions that underpin pride, anger, judgement.
- Knowing the value of authentic & timely forgiveness & apology.
- Knowing that there is always a choice.
Personality & History
Our personalities are in part determined by our genes, in part by our culture, and shaped by our history and experience. So, a person who is naturally a bit high strung or volatile, who is constantly exposed to abuse, is more likely to react quickly, openly and strongly to situations where a threat is present than someone who is more timid, and who grew up with similar abuse. Part of our history is where we fit in our families and what our childhood role was. Oldest children tend to be achievers; youngest children tend to be the peacemakers, it is said.
“For a wise solution reconcile interests, not positions.” – Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without giving in. Roger Fisher & William Ury  (1981). This is a foundational (ground-breaking) book in conflict management – very well worth the read.
Simply, interests define the problem. A conflict lies in the needs, desires, concerns and fears of each person – their ‘interests’. Positions, on the other hand, are each person’s preferred solution to the problem/the conflict. So, my position on a conflict would be different from yours because it addresses MY interests, and your positions addresses YOUR interests. So until we talk about the interests we won’t find an area of commonality and therefore we’ll struggle to resolve the matter we’re in conflict about.
Level of Resilience
How able are you to adapt to changing circumstances? How over-wrought are you, right now, as a result of too much on your plate? If yet another thing were added would you be able to accommodate it, would you be excited at the opportunity, or might you blow up in frustration and anger because you’ve just had enough?
Our natural abilities for resilience are usually dormant – only when we are called upon to adapt or respond quickly to more and more stimuli or situations do we discover the extent of our resilience. Having discovered the limits of one’s resilience through blowing up in anger or saying something one shouldn’t have said is usually a message that it is time for (a) self-care; and (b) learning ways in which to build our resilience muscles.
Knowing our strengths and weaknesses is a good starting point. We all have our inner lives and the stories we tell ourselves that help us make sense of our lives and who we are, but the human tendency is to exaggerate – when we’re good, we believe we’re very, very good; when we’re bad, we believe we’re very, very bad, as Longfellow wrote in his poem about the little girl.
“There was a little girl, and she had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good. and when she was bad she was horrid.”
Sometimes we judge ourselves too harshly and sometimes we deny the truth about ourselves. In conflict management an honest relationship with self is an important starting point to creating a great solution.
Causes of Conflict
Moore’s model of causes of conflict is based on the analysis thousands of conflicts and is frequently used by mediators in facilitating conflict resolution. Each wedge comprises key features that commonly serve to fuel conflict – in this short presentation there isn’t time to go into that. If you would like to consider this model in greater depth, go to http://www.stephenkotev.com/2012/01/24/overview-of-the-circle-of-conflict/
What if people are doing the best they can?
There is a strong human tendency to judge. We make assumptions based on observation, rooted in our own values, culture, personality, and our expectations of how someone should be, or how they should act or even feel.
Wrong assumptions cause us to have unrealistic expectations which cause us to judge unfairly and to have emotional responses that stand in the way of resolving the conflict.
In her research Brené Brown  “Rising Strong” (listen to her TED talk on vulnerability) found that this question “What if people are doing the best they can?”, when considered and answered seriously and sincerely, opens us up to great realizations about our own judgements and how they have fueled our emotional reactions to a person who may have been a problem for us (someone who really winds you up/irritates you).
Brown’s findings include that people who have been in conflict (even just in relation to someone who irritates) discover what they have been contributing to the situation (e.g. not setting boundaries – not saying ‘no’ when that is really the right thing to say but you shy away from it, and therefore feeling and behaving like a victim when things don’t go their way). People who have answered this question have found that they have choices that they could make, based on the insight the answer to the question gives them, and based on empathy rather than judgement. Such as ‘if X is really doing the best he can, I can choose to just be there for him as he struggles with the situation, OR I can accept that it is HIS struggle, not mine, and I can disengage and muster my energies for other things.’
Some talked about the relief that they can stop being angry all the time.
Conflict management starts with managing oneself
Sometimes the best you can do is to look at what you brought to a conflict, recognize that you did the best you can, forgive yourself for the errors you made, and move on. If the other party isn’t willing/interested/available to engage in a conversation that could lead to a resolution of the conflict that is the best you can do for yourself – it is part of self-care.
Even when you think you have no choice, you do actually make a choice – you choose to follow the blind path that says ‘this is the only way’; versus saying to yourself ‘I choose to go down this path because the alternative is more untenable’. (Have you ever noticed how many Hollywood movies have someone saying, somewhere, ‘I had no choice’? It is simply not true.)
Stephen Covey (Snr) offered us a wonderful model of choice.  Between stimulus and response there is always a gap- sometimes it is infinitesimal, sometimes it is big enough to drive a bus through. But it is there – that is where you exercise choice. (Imagine a fight in a bar on a Saturday night – after the bully throws the punch the victim has a split second to choose – Fight or Flight? Negotiate?)
Conflicts are great opportunities for building mutual understanding and respect. The process of getting to know each other better – based on a mutual exploration of interests and based on acknowledging when you’ve been wrong; or irrationally inflexible; or hurtful; serves to rebuild the trust that will generate good solutions to the issue that caused the conflict to begin with.
Your honesty about your boundaries and why they are what they are shifts you away from demonizing each other, also towards building trust. Being vulnerable in being honest is a strong and powerful step.
Increased self-awareness and empathy are your most powerful resources. Along with being assertive about your boundaries and your values.
And so, as you navigate your way through conflict, remind yourself of the question “what if they are doing the best they can?” and the concomitant “am I doing the best I can?” and recognize and honour your boundaries.
 Geert & Gert Jan Hofstede & Michael Minkov: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.
 Christopher Moore: http://www.mediate.com/people/personprofile.cfm?auid=199