Using Curiosity to Manage Conflict

There’s that old saying that two things in life are inevitable, and they’re death and taxes. I think several other items can be added to that list, and one of them is conflict.

Conflict is that nasty stuff that happens when we feel threatened at the intersection of imbalances in power, money, or values.

  • Power conflict is prompted by disparities in control and influence.
  • Economic conflict results when there’s jockeying for access to, and ownership of, limited or scarce resources.
  • Value conflict bubbles up when there are varying preferences, principles, and practices between people’s ways of life and their ideologies.

Differences, another item that can be add to the list of inevitables, is at the heart of all conflict. Our reaction to differences isn’t dissimilar to our reaction to conflict, which ranges from trying to ignore it to trying to vanquish it.

“Come on, sweetie,” implored my mom. “You and your sister have to get along. You’re the oldest, so smooth it out.”

When some people encounter the discord that’s too often prompted by differences, they, like my mom, want to make the antagonism or hostility go away. Making the conflict completely go away is often not a possibility because the differences in power, money, or values are just too broad or deep to be closed. In those cases, in my opinion, the best we can hope for is to manage the conflict, so we can lessen its potential for destruction.

Experts tell us six courses of action exist for managing or settling conflict:
  • avoidance
  • annihilation
  • severing the connection
  • stalemate
  • compromise
  • synthesis

Annihilation is no doubt effective in making the discord go away. However, it’s not really a viable method except in cases of war or defensible homicide (and some would rightfully pushback on its need in those circumstances). Severing the connection isn’t much better. While it may be less violent than annihilation, it’s a form of avoidance that can result in cool neglect at best or oppression at its worst.

Stalemate results when the parties to a conflict give up. The conflict may appear to have been resolved, but it really only has been hidden, suppressed, or reduced to a “cold war” of ridicule and criticism. Psychologists describe stalemate as an intermediate stage of conflict that results from “failure of contentious tactics, exhaustion of resources, loss of social support, and unacceptable costs.”

Compromise is reached through mutual agreement or negotiation. While the underlying differences may remain, the parties agree to split the differences. Everyone gives up a little. It’s akin to putting our childhood lessons about sharing our toys and playing nice in the sandbox. There are those who say compromise is a sellout; others see the personal and societal benefit in give-and-take as they believe there’s no one answer for all beliefs, morals, and values.

As I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, the value of synthesis in addressing conflict has grown greater. In synthesis, we agree to maintain yet transcend our differences because we see how both sides serve a greater purpose. Life isn’t possible without inhaling and exhaling. Love isn’t possible without thinking and feeling. Leadership isn’t effective without results and relationships.

Achieving synthesis requires that we abandon the polarization that results from I’m right/you’re wrong positioning. Synthesis depends on our ability to see both sides of the coin and focus more on “we” than “me.” It means we decide to be both curious and accepting of differences that contribute to a greater good.

Synthesis demands that we shift our paradigm about conflict and differences from something negative to be stamped out or conquered to seeing the differences as part of problems we solve together through trust and acceptance.

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