Ask someone this question: “what 3 words first enter your mind when I say, ‘conflict’?” As a conflict specialist I’ve asked that same question of thousands of people, leaders and groups and can virtually guarantee you’re going to hear something like this: “conflict is ugliness, fighting, stress, problems”. Don’t let those first reactions put you off learning all you can about conflict and don’t think we either love or avoid it! While we all hate the cost, struggle, opposition and strain that conflicts cause, when you think about it, every friend, professional, leader, parent and colleague is in the business of problem solving. Soon after the negative is expressed, you’ll find we all agree: we love being part of or contributing to healthy, timely and positive ways of solving problems. In fact, great dialogue, learning and being part of finding win-wins can be super fun and a valuable, stress-relieving, profitable life skill.

You can’t escape conflict: relationships, social media, politics, television and any workplace are full of very normal drama. Even drama-lovers can be frustrated with costly, problematic fight, flight and freeze reactions where issues should be fixable or not there at all. Conflict doesn’t have to awful if you are well equipped and able to recognize options that deescalate and hold space for communication of needs and use listening time to help with resolution.

I often share the following framework to help others see their conflict and problem situation (or difficult person) might need time to listen for what the underlying cause really is:

1. Conflicts can be simple. Simple miscommunication or awareness issues (or challenges that can be easily understood) can be triggered by any kind of misinformation or disruptive behavior. Someone may get emotional or upset. Where a simple dispute flares, they are navigated quickly or effectively leaving no lasting bitterness, frustration or stress. Simple conflicts end like a good story does: parties learn, are satisfied and can find understanding – there is no need to RE-solve old or underlying concerns.

Think about your best and most-trusted friendship and how problems (that may once have been difficult) are easy or smoothly handled now given learning, trust and openness to finding clarity again.

What to do: simple conflicts are ably handled by you when you find yourself in a healthy group, community or relationship. You may have well-established ‘go-to’ routines and patterns that work to quickly find what matters and solve issues. Healthy relationships offer ways to cope and find options for learning – it won’t be difficult to dig into needs and ask for respect. This often means going to the people directly involved for help, information or clarity.

A word of advice – it may seem obvious, but even if it “is” simple, don’t call any conflict, hurt or challenge “simple” when in the middle of it – it can be seen as diminishing the cost or pain that a problem has caused.

2. Conflicts can be complex. Complex conflicts come with history or systemic or emotional embedded factors. A simple issue can become difficult and complex when people involved become emotional on top of dealing with the problem that triggered upset.

If you’re dealing with stuck opinions, risk, opposition, avoidance or withdrawal, you very likely are dealing with a more complex and quite possibly embedded or escalated conflict. Think about any time you deal with sensitivities like a challenging change at work, a chronically difficult person, or a family reunion with many opposing interests. Remember, if those involved want to solve problem/s differently, you have another additional complexity – you have the original problem, quite possibly emotions and now push-back about the solution that must be acknowledged and solved.

What to do: When seeing complexity in conflict, you’re best to “hold space” for the time and “ripeness” needed to let calmer heads recognize patterns, factors, ideas, consequences and cycles or waves caused by the drama or concern.  Ask questions gently and with curiosity. How, what or who can help? Too often, parties in complex conflicts believe that only a leader or someone with power or authority can support or demand needed change.  Be open to listening to resistance and complaints and where that gets hard, find a skilled neutral or third party who can listen for roots of the problem and help those involved more helpfully express feelings, options and communicate without defending solutions.

3. Conflicts can be wicked. If you’ve seen a wicked level of conflict in your life, a group or at work, you will see the value in this term! It certainly happens in politics frequently. Wicked conflicts are complex, bogged down, deeply embedded with dysfunction that is often the result of a pattern of decisions or behavior that has been poorly handled, left unaddressed and caused harm. Wicked conflict can have created high levels of ongoing cost to people, morale, budgets and relationships.

What to do: if a wicked conflict is affecting you or something (or someone) you care about, it is always best to take a break to step away, even for a few moments to manage your own well-being. Stress can take a simple conflict and make it wicked problem is often the biggest culprit in keeping a solvable problem hidden because those affected can so easily struggle with the symptoms and stress caused by problems: the cost, disruption, chaos, drama and tiring work of coping can themselves become a cycle of related concerns.

It can be a relief for any client, learner or leader to step back and recognize they have been stuck by these levels that cause more and more significant barriers to peace. The “fight, flight, freeze” part of being human is most important to notice about any kind or level of conflict – handle the stress of conflict and solutions start to surface!

It can be difficult for even a conflict specialist like me to solve even the simplest of conflicts when reacting to my own fear or hurt, so even I watch for times when I’m in the middle of conflict. Always remember you may need to take a break, and take time to breath, feel safe and deescalate frustration because that can make even the most difficult issues seem like the simplest issues.

Joan McLeod,
Board Member PIM