Conflict is a dreaded word in many social and organizational settings. At the core, every human being wants to be liked and accepted by his/her counterpart, and the appearance of conflict appears to threaten that basic need. Conflict most often results in one of the three responses: the flight response - withdrawing from the situation without expressing inner emotions to avoid further conflict/pain; the fight response - lashing out with anger and defensiveness; or the freeze response - basically, no response at all: where your neural circuits freeze from the appearance of a threat, rendering you momentarily unable to do or say anything rational or constructive.
One of the most important and valuable trainings for our work and for our lives is learning how to face conflict with empathy and creativity. In the face of conflict, most people employ one of the three (unhealthy) responses listed above, and then they aim to put a bandaid on the situation by either avoiding the topic of conflict(sometimes offering a superficial apology), or avoiding the person altogether. These strategies take them out of the supposed"danger zone" quickly, but they do little to solve any of the problems at their core.
In order to effectively manage conflict, how about we try to reframe our entire view of it? To succeed in conflict requires 3 fundamental shifts in the way we think:
1. The situation is the source of the problem, the other person is my partner in trying to solve the problem. The objective truth is, despite our differences, we actually have more in common with other people than different. There is no reason to view the other party as an enemy or adversary due to a difference in opinion or outlook. He/she also has the basic human needs of happiness, community, personal goals, and desires that make perfect sense based on his/her life experiences.
2. Conflict is not actually dangerous - it is an opportunity to uncover value. We have to suppress the amygdala, the unconscious, primal part of our brains that tells us that if someone is unhappy with us, it is equivalent to a physical threat to our lives and we need to run. In fact, if we stay with the conflict and try to really understand it at its root, we have a better chance of learning more information that can help us come up with a mutually beneficial solution. Isn't that a better outcome than living with bitter, unexpressed feelings?
3. I have a part, big or small, in co-creating the conflict. Navigating through the conflict requires some mental flexibility and humbleness. We need to be open to the possibility that we may be wrong in some ways, and the other person may be wrong in other ways. We need to accept that there may be things we don't know that would change our opinion, and the same goes for the other person. Empathetic conversation offers the space to uncover those pieces of information that are vital to reaching a shared understanding.
The truth is that people are so different. Each individual has a completely unique combination of character traits, priorities, work styles, and life experiences. If we relegate ourselves to only being around people who are like us, and/or conforming ourselves to the standards of those around us(both essentially the same thing), we may live comfortably, but we will fall short of achieving greatness. This has been proven to me time and time again.
Conflict is a natural occurrence and also serves a purpose in our organizations and in our world. I believe its purpose is to uncover creative and valuable solutions to the world's problems, for those who are brave enough to delve into it with empathy and self-awareness. For those who have the stamina to not give up on the other party even when it gets hard.True courage is not only taking risks with our money and our physical bodies, but with our egos and to the possibility that we could be wrong, as well.