Conflict: What I wish I’d learnt at school

An opportunity to work with a group of 15-year olds this month exploring different aspects of conflict got me thinking.  Alongside other life skills such as managing money and nurturing mental health, what are some of the things about conflict that I wish I’d learnt as a teenager?

It’s unavoidable – and may be useful

A good chunk of my training with adult learners deals with the common assumptions that conflict is a bad thing. Or it’s seen as something to be avoided. But it can serve a useful function.  The positives that conflict can offer include the opportunity to air issues that need to be resolved.  We have an opportunity to describe what we need and to make specific requests to meet those needs. It’s an opportunity to embrace diverse thinking and different perspectives. In the workplace, a team without conflict isn’t a dream team, it’s a stagnant team!

And we can’t avoid conflict entirely.  We can choose to disengage from a conflict situation, by choosing an avoidant approach. But we are still subject to that conflict, but now without the scope to work constructively. We;’re missing the opportunity to meet our needs and to understand better what the other person is seeking to achieve. Hint: there’s generally more to it than just because they want to be mean. This might have surprised my 15-year old self!

To understand what’s happening, I need to go beyond the right/wrong trap

Focusing on allocating blame is limiting.  It limits the scope to understand what is driving the other person’s actions and behaviour.  I can widen the scope for us to reach an agreement by making a different choice. I can do this by seeking to understand what’s going on under the surface. Why are they behaving as they are?  What are they trying to achieve?  What really are they trying to achieve? This is also reminds me of the Stephen Covey lesson to ‘seek first to understand’ before I make my own case.

I can choose how I engage with conflict and I can engage better

Our learned conflict style isn’t the only option available to us. Talking through concerns wasn’t the default option when I was growing up. Looking back, I suspect that many of the adults around me were conflict-avoiders. There are certainly times when avoiding a conflict may serve me well. But if that’s my only way of responding then there’s an opportunity to do better. And that could work out better for me too.

My conclusion – I have improved how I manage conflict situations and there’s scope to improve further

I have worked on my conflict skills for some years now. And I sometimes describe myself as a ‘recovering conflict avoider’ when I’m training. Using this is when we’re talking through the five Thomas-Kilman conflict styles (avoiding, competing, compromising, accommodating, collaborating).  

I know that there is always scope to improve. It’s easier to enagage constructively in conflict as a third party, or in a professional setting. And, for me, I find it hardest to respond well in situations of personal conflict with my family. But I appreciate the skills I’ve built so far and I want to go further.

When training and coaching, I always emphasise that conflict skills can be developed at any stage of life. It would be great to start to develop those early on. But even if we didn’t, we can still build a solid set of skills to engage with conflict at all levels of intensity more effectively.

You can connect with Pip here for a conversation about conflict.

Uncomfortable conversations: Love them or hate them?

Who relishes a conversation that feels uncomfortable?  Alesha Dixon commented in an interview earlier this year – “I love an uncomfortable conversation. I really do. Because I’m not afraid to learn and to be wrong.”  Her comment has really stayed with me. It’s unusual to hear someone talking about difficult discussions in such a positive way.

How do you feel when you’re out of your comfort zone?

It’s not uncommon to feel threatened – as though you’re under attack. If you feel yourself going into flight-fight mode, you wouldn’t be alone. Dan Goleman referred to the “amygdala hijack” in Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter More than IQ. That hijack often doesn’t bring out the best in anyone. Steve Peters has described the brain’s reaction to the hijack as a chimp.

Feeling threatened?

It’s a threat

When we perceive specific threats in a social situation, it affects our ability to interact productively. Commonly these are threats to our social standing: having our competence undermined, feeling as though we’re being micro-managed; believing a situation to be unfair. Acknowledging the stressors that trigger our threat responses is a good way to ensure that the confrontation doesn’t get the better of you.

You’re wrong!”

‘Being wrong’ is a very emotionally loaded phrase.  It can get in the way of listening to other perspectives because it’s a rare person who is able to keep practising active listening, when they feel like they are under attack.

It can be scary to admit that you might be getting something wrong – or that you just don’t know about something.  If you’re trying to do that in the middle of a conflict, then that’s really tricky.

But it’s important. You may be missing out on an opportunity. Those emotions may get in the way of hearing a different perspective – really hearing it, without that sense of threat.

Managing your emotions

Thankfully there’s a lot of advice around about managing that emotional response during difficult conversations.  Much focuses on getting your breathing under control – whether as part of mediation, or just taking some deep breaths.

“Why is Marcus so concerned about this issue?”

There’s also a classic technique of ‘distanced self-talk’ – as demonstrated by Marcus Aurelius.  There’s a shift from thinking ”why am I feeling so upset?”, which is considered immersed self-talk, to a distanced self-talk question, eg “why is Joe feeling so upset?” (if your name is Joe). 

Sometimes, getting some support from someone outside the situation can make a difference to how those discussions go. If you’d like some support to manage difficult conversations, get in touch and I might be able to help.

Expanding Your Conflict Style to Manage Conflict Better (& Reduce Stress)

How do you react when you feel yourself to be in a conflict?  Do you find your competitive nature is triggered?  Or do you want to avoid the whole thing until it blows over? We all react differently to conflicts – and sometimes our reactions differ depending on the conflict.  Often, however, we have a natural style that we revert to.

Why does this matter?  Because it’s a stress driver that we can reduce.

Conflict is everywhere.  For lots of us, our relationships are feeling the strain of a year of the pandemic.  There are conflicts within families, with work colleagues, with neighbours, with bosses etc etc.  

Many people find conflicts stressful and upsetting. Understanding our inherent conflict style can help us manage conflicts better and reduce our stress levels.  

The Styles

It’s me or you…

Thomas and Kilman describe five major conflict styles, categorised and explained below:

Competing: I want to win (at all costs?) – assertive and uncooperative

This style can be useful when decisions need to be made fast (eg in an emergency), or when you need to take a firm stance against someone trying to take an unfair advantage.  The danger is that it can be perceived as aggressive and focused on individual benefit.

Accommodating:  OK, we’ll do it your way…. (I’m not really bothered) – unassertive and cooperative

Could be a useful approach for an issue that you don’t really care about, perhaps to ‘bank’ the favour for something else that matters more to you.  The risk is that you might not get that favour returned.

Avoiding: Can the whole thing just go away now please? – unassertive and uncooperative

Perhaps this has its moment when winning the argument is genuinely impossible, or it just doesn’t matter to you.  But it’s generally seen as a weak approach that is unlikely to serve your best interests.

Working together

Collaborating: Surely, we could work together and get this sorted out? – assertive and cooperative

This style is really useful when you need people with different perspectives to work together on a solution, especially with multiple parties involved in a conflict.  It can also be useful when there have been other conflicts, are likely to be more areas of conflict and you need to work together in the future.

Compromising: let’s find a way through that we can both live with – moderately assertive and cooperative

Can be useful when the cost of the conflict is high, either tangibly (legal fees?) or as an intangible cost to the parties (eg the relationship impact).  This one can sound like a great idea, but there’s a risk that everyone ends up dissatisfied.

Which is better?

Well, that depends.  You may want to use different styles at different times.  In a negotiation, you may need to prioritise certain issues, and yield on others, in order to reach an overall agreement.  You may also have a few styles that you tend to use.  But maybe there are others you never employ.

It can also be hard to unlearn the conflict style that you have naturally developed.  If your immediate reaction is to avoid the conflict at all costs, doing something different goes against your instincts – and it’s a challenge.  

OK, I’m an avoider. Where do I go from here?

What now?

Recognising your instinctive style is a good starting point. There are lots of online assessments that can help, some for free.

Learning how and when to use the other conflict styles to get better results when you’re in a conflict can also help.  You can do this on your own, or with the support of a conflict coach.  Either way, it can be reassuring to know that you have a few options in your conflict repertoire to use when responding to conflict.  You’re not stuck in the same patterns for ever.

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3 Conflict Insights: from war-zones to mediation

Working in Helmand or Mogadishu looks very different to working in London or Hove, where I’m now based. But conflicts often have much in common. Here are three insights from my time working in international conflict environments that are relevant to mediation, and more broadly.

Conflict and crisis can be useful.

This needs a nuance before starting – it isn’t always the case. Not for the millions of people worldwide who suffer the consequences of violent conflicts. But often, to quote Einstein, in the midst of every crisis, opportunity. 

A delay in delivery of critical farming supplies for the programme that I worked on in Helmand meant that it looked like we would miss the planting window. That could have meant a significant loss of credibility for the local government, who we worked with. Being that close to failing was useful. It opened up an opportunity to be bolder, braver and more creative as we worked in different ways and considered ideas that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We came out stronger.

I strongly believe that conflict can be an opportunity. It can lead to fresh thinking, flushing out issues and making changes that could have otherwise taken years to work through iteratively. Obviously, the challenge is having the skills to manage that conflict constructively. That’s where mediation and conflict coaching can help.

Clarity about what really matters is crucial.

Conflict can feel dramatic; the he/she/they said accounts can be very compelling. But that the drama may make it difficult to lose perspective and/or what really matters. 

The pace and pressure made it hard to prioritise when I worked in Helmand. It often felt as though everything was important, because so much really was. To focus on the core mission, my military colleagues defined their ‘main effort’. That means that, of all the actions that are taking place within a command, main effort is applied to the single one that is recognised as the most critical to success at that moment. It’s logical, if really challenging to step back and consider what is the most important objective. It’s worth it because the clarity this gives is invaluable.

Skilled mediators have an ability to flush out what really matters to the parties. It may not be the first issue presented. But it needs to be at least acknowledged and, most likely, addressed for an agreement to be reached. An external actor to a conflict has a different perspective and can help to identify what really matters to each party.

Understanding whose conflict this is – and my role.

There may be (many) more people involved in a conflict that those at its core, who ultimately have the power to reach an agreement.

I worked in Somalia on the agreements for the shape of the security sector and extent of donor support. One significant risk was that the interests of the donors and imminent timing of a big international conference would drive the agreement. But sustainability depended more on the agreements between myriad Somalia stakeholder, plus the popular support from affected communities. They were the main protagonists in the conflict.

Thinking about whose conflict is it really is also more relevant broadly. A mediator creates the space for discussion, manages the mediation process and listens out for the issues that really matter. They don’t ‘own’ the dispute, nor are they responsible for reaching an agreement. The parties are responsible. But, as in international conflicts, it can be beneficial to have that external actor present. They can provide a framework for the discussion and help the parties reach an agreement.

If you’re affected by a conflict and would like to explore your options then I’d love to talk to you.

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