Conflict and People

The word “conflict” conjures up rather negative thoughts. Worse still, we can easily develop the sense that conflicts are all around us. And this way of thinking drives one slowly bonkers. In other words, there is something dangerous about conflict.

But not all conflict is dangerous. And this is an important point. In fact, we need what we would call “controlled conflict”. It releases our energies. For example, in sports. Or in fiction. Indeed, we have institutionalized conflict in western thought via the word “competition”. Once we accept that the marketplace governs institutional decision making, we infer a liking for controlled conflict.

So we cannot talk of eliminating conflict. That would result in rather boring stasis. We talk instead of managing it. And, of course, we need the requisite skills to manage it well. Sadly, it appears that we don’t do this all that well. At least, not yet. Why do I say so?`Just consider the tension around the globe about freedom of speech. The more stress that we feel over free speech, the more stress we feel about the conflict that arises from speech. And the more we seek to control speech — or manipulate it via spreading falsehoods — the more we evidence a fear that conflicts cannot be managed.

this can lead to some rather odd debates. For example, should the spending of money for the purpose of spreading speech be considered the same thing as speech itself? The US Supreme Court has answered “yes”. And so, zillionaires spend obscene amounts on advertising in order to sway political process towards their individual beliefs. Does this “protection of liberty” help manage conflict? Well, we don’t need to get into this issue in order to see that we are in deep water when it comes to managing conflict via managing speech.

So how does one get better at managing conflict?`The conventional wisdom is to first learn how to distinguish the positive variety from the negative. Gamification helps us here. When we proclaim “let the games begin!” we are asserting a right to creative conflict in the best sense.

But what about “negative conflict”? First, one might reasonably ask, “what is that?” I would argue that all conflict that threatens the individual (beyond the game) has a negative aspect. The threat of something going beyond the context arouses the primitive flight or flight response. And when the threat has been issued, we are on the dark side. BTW, modern society may underestimate how frequently we are affected by this type of threat. Why? Well, I think Seth Godin is right when he says that creativity requires an acceptance of vulnerability. In other words, the more we talk about “security”, the less we move towards a creative approach to life. And you can translate “security” into jobs, salaries, relationships, etc. Interesting. I wonder if anyone has studied the link between media focus on unemployment rates and students choosing to study the arts

Back to the subject at hand – coping with the negative. Seth argues for a sort of macho “toughing it out” approach (dancing with the resistance). But this is an appeal to heroism that I think boils down to assuaging the ego. Hemingway, for example, constantly wrote about how a writer should be tough. And then tougher still. And then really tough. And then, really, really tough. And then he blew his brains out. Sure we need to cope with “resistance” on a personal level, but we also need help to deal with this on a social level. In fact, I am in with Steve Johnson, Matt Ridley, Mihalyi Csikszentmilyi at al that social trumps personal when it comes to building capacity for creative work. ‘HBR offers some useful thoughts about dealing with the dark side in the social context. A key idea – don’t personalize it, contextualize it.

It is a good starting point. After all, we are looking for leverage, not annihilation. What is leverage? Well, let’s just say it is what makes the world go round.

If you are still reading, you might see by now the use in working on conflict management skill sets. We have been offering this as a short term course here in Tartu for some years now. And I would argue that thinking more deeply about modeling conflict management has sensitized us to the complexities of the challenge. The stakes are high for getting the model right. Too much conflict elimination and we get stagnation. Too little and the games get out of hand. Bill Ury proposes a “self-regulating tool” to re-balance negotiations to get beyond conflict. My experience is that this sounds nice but is simplistic. We need a more robust approach. But you might judge for yourself.



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