Small distinctions, big differences

July 20, 2015

If the number and content of comments generated are any indication, my previous post clearly struck a chord with some readers. One flat-out said that it was wrong to suggest that there could be hidden value in conflict. Others challenged my definition of conflict, presumably because the word carries so many (well-deserved) negative connotations that it cannot possibly be beneficial. All in all it was healthy, invigorating discussion, and one that shows the importance of defining terms carefully. At the risk of reopening debate I'd like to clarify and expand my previous definition of conflict slightly, and parse a few other related terms in order to provide fuller context.

In the original article I defined conflict as something that begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. To take a rather mundane example, let's say you and I are discussing where to meet for lunch. If neither of us has any strong taste preferences, food allergies or other needs that might conceivably be challenged by the lunch decision, then all we have is disagreement. Our relationship can remain whole, untouched, and fully functional. According to our definition there is no conflict because neither of us particularly cares one way or the other; there is no emotional "heat" in the situation. If, on the other hand, we both have more strongly-held beliefs, attitudes or opinions about where to dine then we are potentially headed for conflict. In this case something that one or or both of us care about -- namely, our choice of lunch location -- is or could be impacted by the other's.

Conflict continuumTo that let me now add another definition of conflict that I have used in previous posts: it's simply a signal that something needs to change. By this I mean something about the relationship, or how we are handling a given situation, needs to shift in order for us to return to a healthier, conflict-free state, or else experience continued discomfort and risk potential escalation. Thus if we merely disagree about lunch venue options then nothing needs to change; obviously we need to somehow render a decision before we both starve, but otherwise the situation and relationship remain normal, cordial, and healthy. If we're in genuine conflict over restaurant options then we probably need to change how we're making the decision or managing our relationship. For example, each may need to stop insisting on getting his or her way; we may need to consult a third party to help us settle the matter; or I may need to stop constantly deferring to you so I don't start resenting you for picking the restaurant every time we lunch.

To get a better idea of the distinction between the two, it may help to think of disagreement and conflict as being two places on a continuum of emotional distress and discomfort, as shown in the accompanying illustration:

On the left is a normal state: things are fine between us and our relationship is not suffering. There is no emotional pain for either of us. On the contrary, we enjoy mutual respect, admiration, perhaps even affection. If we shift slightly to the right on the continuum into disagreement, it may cause a little stress (especially if it's a minor issue such as the one in our example above) but it's not damaging or fatal to the relationship and it certainly doesn't cause either of us to feel threatened in any way, emotionally or physically. We just disagree. We still feel positive about each other and the relationship.

Further on is conflict. This is where one or both of us feels significant discomfort or emotional distress as a result of a real or perceived threat to something important, whether it's our identity or self-concept, our physical well-being, or an infinite array of things both concrete and abstract that may be affected. Needs like self-esteem, a sense of belonging, or acknowledgement are common trigger points in conflict. These are important to us. We care deeply about them and when sense they're about to be infringed or transgressed, we react. We feel pain. Imagine the case of two co-writers working on a new song or screenplay, each feeling very attached to their own creative "children," i.e., their respective contributions to the collaborative work: each feels very strongly about the value or importance of their input and may push hard to ensure it survives the editing process. In such a conflict the working relationship itself may also now be in jeopardy, but it doesn't automatically mean it's over or that the co-authors can't still create together. Something needs to change in order for the situation and/or our relationship to go back to the way it was before the issue(s) arose, i.e., a healthy, calm, pleasant state free of distress or discomfort.

Note that even within the one state we call conflict there can be a range of intensity in the pain and discomfort. On one hand we might experience productive conflict, such as one might experience in a passion-filled brainstorming session: team members may want or need to feel their ideas are valued, valid, and heard, even though they realize that not all ideas emerging from the brainstorm can be implemented. On the other hand is destructive, personalized conflict where the participants are actively interrupting each other, dismissing or judging each other's ideas, or belittling the people putting forth the same ideas. In both cases, according to our comprehensive conflict definition, something we care about is being impacted or threatened, and something needs to change in order to reduce the pain and discomfort of the situation or relationship. Some sort of healing or repair needs to take place if the creative brainstormers are to return to a normal, pain-free state.

Next on our continuum of pain is harassment (and its equally ugly variants including bullying, intimidation and discrimination). The consequences of harassment, bullying and their ilk can be severe; in extreme cases it can result in criminal charges or human rights violations, not to mention considerable psychological or bodily harm caused to the victim. Note that harassment doesn't necessarily arise out of a pre-existing disagreement or even conflict.

It's important, therefore, to avoid interpreting this continuum as a time line. A normal or OK state does not naturally or inevitably devolve into disagreement simply through the passage of time. Disagreements don't turn into conflict, eventually, all the time -- they can end as quickly as they start -- and conflicts don't necessarily escalate into harassment.  However, a disagreement or conflict probably will escalate into something more personalized and destructive if it isn't resolved or at least managed well.

(Here it's important to make a further distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. The former may be the goal, but not all conflicts can be resolved. They can, however, be managed so they don't spiral out of control, which is a topic for a future post.)

To many people the difference in meaning between these states is a question of mere degrees. But there is significant difference in how to deal with each situation in order to get the best, most sustainable outcomes. A normal situation or relationship may not require much beyond maintenance and common sense to prevent it from disintegrating, but it takes special skills to prevent, manage or resolve cases of conflict and harassment. While these skills are seldom innate they can be acquired, and much of the work we do at Fifth House Group is in skills development and training. (Better prevention than some other intervention.)

In summary, conflict is a signal that something needs to change, and it begins when something we care about is about to be affected or threatened in some way. A useful analogy is physical pain, which is the body/brain's mechanism for signalling that something physiological needs care and attention. Chronic symptoms are obviously not desirable, should never be ignored, and left untreated can be fatal. Still, feeling the initial pain or discomfort is a necessary first step to healing because it warns you to investigate and seek treatment. It begins when accident or illness affects the body, threatening physiological health -- and it can be a signal that growth is occurring (as they say at the gym, "no pain, no gain!"). Thus I stand by my previous contention that conflict can be valuable: just as pain leads improved health when managed promptly and well (sometimes even more robust than prior to the injury), conflict can also ultimately result in a stronger, more fully functional creative team, group or organisation.

- kda