Insights: What to do about conflict?

March 24, 2015
Eva Malisius

Conflict is an integral part of all human interaction. Whether at home with our families, at the workplace with colleagues or even standing in line in the grocery store – conflict happens all the time.  

"In itself, conflict is neither good nor bad. It just is," says School of Humanitarian Studies Prof. Eva Malisius. "True, some conflict leads to violence and requires serious intervention. Most of the time, however, conflict is just annoying and eats away our energy and focus to engage with more important things."

Here, Malisius explores how to change the dynamics of conflict from destructive to constructive, and how to embrace conflict to bring about change and progress.

Do not run away: Acknowledge conflict and give it space to breathe.

No conflict happens in isolation. Rather, it involves relationships or interdependence between at least two individuals. The parties involved in a conflict experience conflict as interference with the achievement of their goals, whether they are individual goals or collective goals for a family, team, organization or community. Conflict exists when it is real for at least one of the parties, whether disagreement about goals is real or perceived incompatibility. Acknowledging conflict implies recognizing that something in the interaction has shifted or is out of sync in the system.

Recognizing that there is a “problem” allows those involved in a conflict to be heard, valued and validated. Giving conflict the space to breathe does not imply agreeing with any one side, or even that the conflict itself exists. Rather it acknowledges the experience of conflict, which can sometimes be enough to move beyond.

Keep moving: Conflicts are complex, dynamic, and assume a reality of their own.

Conflict is all about change; conflict changes a system, whether the conflict is resolved or transformed – or avoided. Along with accepting the reality of conflict comes the acknowledgment that it means different things to different people, levels, cultures, contexts.  Analyzing conflict, why and how, and understanding more of what it is about allows delving more into the uniqueness of each conflict and the best-suited approaches for moving beyond.

How to engage with the reality of conflict depends on the specific challenges and sources for each conflict.

Contributing factors to conflict include:

  • Communication and misunderstandings;
  • Emotions, which can fuel, moderate, or control conflict;
  • Norms and values, which inform what we consider accepted standards of behavior;
  • Adopted or given structures, including legal frameworks, hierarchies, and decision-making processes; and
  • Historical context or past experience, whether in the same or a different setup.

Resolving conflict is all about knowing the details, but not getting caught up in them.

Step back: Analyze and reflect, take a moment before moving forward.

Whenever you are faced with conflict, take a moment to step back. Gather your tools for dealing with conflict, analyze what it is all about and reflect before jumping into action. More often than not we are inclined to act and react when faced with conflict. Sometimes that works, and the conflict goes away – but we are not always that lucky. 

Conflict can be tricky, especially when we jumped to conclusions rather than investing in sustainable (re)solution. Taking the time to step back might seem time consuming at first, but at a minimum is always an investment in yourself and the relationship involved in the conflict. This will result in more informed decisions, and maximizing the outcome of a conflict. The action is more likely to fit the problem, identifying the best way for moving forward.

Hold your ground: Rather than giving in or competing until the win, focus on what is important.

It can be quite easy to get lost in conflict. When we care a lot about the issue, we compete until we win. If we care more about the relationship, we often avoid conflict altogether, give in or give up and everyone involved loses. We must focus on what is important. That can be an issue or a relationship, or a complex system of interdependence and interaction. What is important is not the conflict in itself, but rather who we are and what we do. It is essential to hold your ground, stand by your values, and acknowledge that the boundaries of freedom, respect, tolerance and co-existence are as much about yourself as they are about others.

Celebrate success: Review and reflect on what has been accomplished.

Celebrating success in the context of conflict might seem silly at first. We rather not talk about conflict in the first place, so why acknowledge when we have successfully made it go away forever? Part of dealing with conflict constructively is about accepting the realities of conflict, and that conflict brings about change, every single time. Celebrating success in the context of conflict implies acknowledging what was accomplished and how it came about. This enables us to learn from conflict and grow by taking a moment to review and reflect on what has been accomplished. Celebrating success will leave us strengthened and empowered for the next time conflict strikes – and enable us to know more about what to do about conflict, and how to deal with conflict more constructively.