Conflict has a bad rap. When I ask audiences what’s the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word “conflict,” I usually get answers like, “run away,” “somebody gets hurt,” “I hate it,” “fighting,” or “war.” Most people have negative associations with conflict, usually from personal experience. Maybe it is from growing up in a home where conflict turned nasty and people got hurt. Maybe it’s from working in environments where people use passive-aggressive tactics to get what they want when there’s conflict. Just look around our world today to see the casualties caused by negative conflict.
I grew up the son of Mennonite missionary parents. Mennonites are a protestant denomination known for their work in peace and nonviolent conflict resolution. The early messages I received growing up were, “Turn the other cheek,” or “Find another way to solve your problem without resorting to violence.” My parents dedicated their lives to building more peaceful and uplifting relationships.
My formal education includes a PhD in clinical psychology, certification as a conflict mediator, and advanced training in communication models to reduce conflict. I’m no stranger to conflict having grown up in Botswana, a country neighboring South Africa during apartheid, having worked in addictions treatment and marital counseling, and having spent the past 12 years working with executive leaders who often have a very distorted view of what conflict is and how to handle it. Throughout this experience, I’ve discovered four myths about conflict resolution that can help point us to better solutions than the ones we’ve been using.
Myth # 1: Peace is the absence of conflict
Don’t confuse peace with tranquility. Don’t confuse lack of shouting with the absence of conflict. I’ve experienced many families, churches, and organizations who claim to be peaceful just because they don’t raise their voices and they “agree to disagree.” Yet the amount of violence in these communities rivals a war zone. Passive-aggressive gossip, manipulation, avoidance, withholding information, and power plays are the rules of the game.
Peace is an active, dynamic, and generative process that requires healthy conflict. If peace means we are getting along, cooperating, and not hurting each other, then we can’t get there without addressing our differences and disagreements. Diversity was built into the universe from the beginning. Embracing and working with it is the only way towards peace, and this involves conflict.
Myth # 2: Conflict is destructive
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Mythologist, poet, and psychologist Michael Meade believes that the purpose of conflict is to create. If we define conflict simply as a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing, then the real question becomes, “How are we going to close the gap?” The way we go about using the energy created by conflict can be destructive or constructive. Ford Motor Company used the energy of conflict during the 2009 recession to reinvent themselves and grow profits without taking bailouts. For Wells Fargo, some of the energy caused by the gap between what they were earning and what their shareholders wanted was used to illegally sign up thousands of customers for services they didn’t ask for.
Myth # 3: Conflict should be reduced, managed, avoided, or controlled
Conflict generates energy. Have you ever wanted something that you didn’t have? Did you feel the energy contained in your discomfort? What did you do? Did you use that energy to work towards your goal? Have you ever solved a big problem or achieved a significant goal, and then had that anticlimactic let down? It’s because the energy of conflict was gone. The solution; set a new goal, create another gap, generate more conflict.
The problem with conflict reduction, mediation, or management philosophies is that they make conflict out to be the culprit. Conflict isn’t the problem. Conflict is the source of energy. The problem is the casualties caused when we misuse that energy. Any efforts to remove the conflict will necessarily reduce the creative potential.This is why I believe the misuse of conflict is the greatest energy crisis facing our world.
Myth # 4: Compassion leads to less conflict
Many people misunderstand compassion to be about empathy, sympathy, caring, support, and doing good for others. The Latin root of the word means “to struggle (or suffer) with.” Compassion definitely includes a heartfelt care for another; however, this caring is translated into co-suffering. Compassion means to get in the trenches with another person, suffer together, and share in the difficult responsibility of creating something amazing through conflict. Compassion does not mean doing it for them, rescuing them, or avoiding accountability.
We’ve pioneered strategies for Compassionate Accountability, the process of using conflict to create by balancing mutual accountability with dignity and respect. In our work, compassion leads to more conflict; good conflict. I believe that compassion means you care enough to engage in creative conflict with someone.
Do you believe in any of these conflict resolution myths? How does it affect your ability to negotiate conflict? By challenging these myths you can begin reframing your approach to conflict and generate positive results. You don’t have to shy away from conflict. Use the energy to create something amazing today!