The news media does not pay much attention to conflict that occurs in our workplaces and homes unless it results in violence. Yet significant financial and social losses result from the inability or unwillingness of individuals to effectively manage the dynamics of interpersonal differences. Many hidden costs of conflict in the business environment have been noted in conflict management literature. These include:
- Wasted and lost time due to employee and management attention spent on conflict issues.
- Reduced decision quality caused by ineffective communication and power struggles between employees or work units who are not getting along.
- Emotional and relationship costs that result when individuals choose to remain in opposition to each other.
- The need to restructure work team composition or work schedules to separate employees who are having conflict with each other.
- Loss of physical and intellectual property due to theft, damage, sabotage, and undermining.
- Decreased job motivation and morale problems resulting from interpersonal stress in the workplace.
- Loss of quality employees who leave an organization to seek a place where they can work with less tension and greater satisfaction.
- And in some cases conflict that can lead to accusations of harassment and discrimination as well as violence or threats of violence.
The fields of social work and counseling address the negative consequences of conflict in families and personal relationships. Frequent or prolonged arguments, break down in communication, increasing levels of self-centeredness, and destructive revenge are the signs that family/personal conflict is becoming a serious problem. Stress is a natural result of conflict and can be harmful to mental and physical health. These problems may lead to broken relationships, separation, divorce, domestic abuse, and behavioral disorders. Interpersonal or intrapersonal conflict is nearly always present for individuals and families who seek professional counseling.
Conflict at all levels has the same basic drivers: unsuccessful attempts to get personal needs met or competitive efforts to achieve power and control. It stems from differences in thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, goals, and values. Conflict presents itself in a variety of ways and can be fueled to intense levels by feelings such as anger or revenge. Much of the time individuals use restraint and conform to social norms regarding acceptable ways to cope with conflict. However coping with and tolerating the dynamics of conflict often do not resolve it, but sometimes that is the best that will occur.
While it typically carries a negative image, conflict in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Conflict is often necessary for change and presents an opportunity for improvement to occur. Not the conflict itself but the way it is handled will determine whether the outcome is constructive or destructive. Nothing divides people more than poorly managed conflict - and nothing brings people together more than successfully managed conflict. The process of resolving conflict can be healing and promote a quality of cooperation and commitment that was not present previously. Conflict can be very costly when it is ignored, handled ineffectively, or allowed to persist. When handled well, conflict can be the source for constructive change, improved performance, positive relationships, and increased motivation.
Each of us experiences conflict at some level on a daily basis – and we have a choice about how we handle it. Our natural fears and negative associations about conflict frequently keep us from addressing it. We may have been taught that conflict should be suppressed or avoided in an effort to “get along”. Or we may want to avoid the stress of confronting the situation believing that it will only make things worse. However when armed with determination and some basic skills we have the ability to manage conflict in ways that can bring about positive results. This approach sees conflict not just as a problem, but as a stimulus to make a situation better. In fact, this is the only way that some improvements are made.
A foundation for resolving conflict is to practice the strategy reflected in the Prayer of Saint Francis from the 4th Century and promoted in Steven Covey’s excellent book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This simple, but often difficult process inspires openness and trust which is the starting place for successful resolution of differences. The use of respectful, empathic listening and a sincere effort to understand one another is a component utilized in counseling, coaching, mediation, and other processes involved in conflict resolution. However this technique is not limited to professionals and can be used by each of us at any time and place. True understanding moves us from a place of contention to one of receptivity. It opens the door to tolerance and collaboration.
If we look around us we can find many good examples of people and organizations that are invested in managing conflict constructively. There are a number of religious and values based organizations which are working to resolve conflicts on a local, national and international level such as the American Friends Service Committee. The National Conference for Community & Justice operates throughout the United States to promote understanding and the constructive resolution of prejudices among people of differing faiths, races, and cultures. Business organizations are beginning to realize the value of proactively addressing conflict and reflect this in their policies and procedures as well as by offering conflict skills training and mediation for employees. Mediation centers provide free or low cost opportunities to resolve issues involving disputes and conflicts that might otherwise end up in court. Some schools provide peer mediation programs that teach young people the knowledge and skills needed to manage disagreements effectively – though more or this is needed. Families go to counseling out of concern for the level of anger and dissonance that they experience in their homes. None of these opportunities would occur if there were not an interest in constructively managing the costs of conflict. Resources exist and should be utilized. We must each seek opportunities to learn, teach, and practice the skills needed to resolve differences peacefully.
At this time of year many of us make New Year’s resolutions. This year let’s make a New Year’s “conflict resolution” in which we resolve to address a conflict in our home, work, or community. The efforts of one, or a few, may serve as role models and provide the impetus for others to join in this effort. Solutions to conflict can be discovered with determination and effort. Sometimes all it takes is the courage to confront it. Other times professional support is needed via counseling, coaching, training, or mediation. Conflict can be costly and will never go away. But through our collective commitment to manage conflict constructively we have the opportunity to make a difference in the quality of the environments in which we live, work, and play.