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New Assumptions in Conflict Management
By Karen Rigdon
Conflict is a given in life. The question is not if conflict will occur in your life, but rather when. When conflict does surface, the desired outcome is for it to be healthy and productive. Productive conflict, in some proportion, can be witnessed in all creative groups, classrooms, and companies as well as in all healthy relationships.
Conflict theorists maintain that how we think about and verbalize issues in conflict dictates how we will behave in the throws of conflict. If one uses war and battle metaphors to describe conflict such as, I really killed that issue, or I beat them into submission, the chances are that the conflict will result in a Win-Lose situation. In addition, seeing conflict through a battle/war lens often justifies inappropriate, cruel, hostile, or violent behavior in the mind of the competitor. This type of non-productive conflict often sets the stage for a more intense future battle.
Ideally, it is most productive to have the parties in conflict sit down, have a discussion of mutual needs, develop a synergistic solution, and make an action plan to implement ideas. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. In the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, Anything less than Win/Winis a poor second best that will have impact in the long-term relationship. The cost of that impact needs to be carefully considered.
Today, conflict theorists have developed nine new assumptions for conflict that have replaced some out-dated ways of thinking. The following will introduce a number of these new assumptions as presented by Dr. Jerry Pepper, communication professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, to the International Falls Masters of Education candidates.
The first new assumption is that people are responsible for their own feelings, what they say, and how they respond. This replaces the old thinking that someone can make another feel or do something in a confrontation. This view holds individuals accountable for their own feelings and behaviors, not others. So, successful conflict management begins with controlling ourselves rather than trying to control our conflict partners.
Depending on the conflict situation, both confrontation and avoidance can be considered legitimate options. In the past, avoidance was not seen a viable choice. Today, avoidance is often the preferred option, especially if there is a physical or psychological risk involved. In addition, it is now recognized that communication will not necessarily make things better. Communication is not a magical elixir; sometimes communication will actually make things worse.
In conflict situations, it is now understood that people respond to one another in terms of their perceptions. Reality in conflict is irrelevant, says Pepper, because conflict exists at the level of perception. Getting to the heart of an issue is often so far removed from the actual experience of the conflict that the cause of conflict could take many years to uncover.
Following perception, the context of a conflict is most significant. The context gives it meaning and creates expectations for behavior. How you present yourself and the issues in one context versus another can be critical in determining whether the conflict is appropriately managed. Classrooms are the ideal place to teach conflict management skills and those skills can then be carried onto the playground and into the home. Having the freedom to disagree can set the stage for increased learning and interesting debates where the parties may settle on agreeing to disagree.
Another mindset of the eighties, that has been scrutinized and reworked, states that all people have the innate desire to cooperate and collaborate. The truth of the matter is that tension, generated in conflict circumstances, motivates the average person to compete. It is a natural response to feel the pressure of competition in addition to the desire for cooperation. Recognizing these factors, one can evaluate the polarity of these influences and then personally assess and clarify the points that are open or closed to compromise.
Finally, Pepper noted that the literature used to argue that conflict situations are chaotic and unpredictable. Today we know that conflict is relatively predictable and, if you have a sense for the direction that it is going, it is indeed possible to restrain an unhealthy, destructive flow. Even though it is possible to influence the course of a disharmonious situation, one must keep in mind that not all conflicts are resolvable. However, taking steps to pursue areas of agreement, expressing trust, seeking solutions that are mutually beneficial, and showing sincere concern in the face of disharmony will ensure that you have acted with forethought and maturity to bring about productive results.
Karen Rigdon is the general music, band, and choir director at Indus School and a member of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Masters of Education Cohort in International Falls.
-- Anonymous, March 27, 2000