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The Good and Bad of Conflict

by Ken Johnson
August 2014 Ken Johnson

When Americans hear the word "conflict" it is automatically perceived as a negative thing. As a mediator, I can attest that the field of Conflict Resolution is a multibillion dollar industry with certified professionals easily making $75 to $350 per hour and more. However, the truth of the matter is that conflict can be either a positive or negative force - therefore not all conflict needs to be resolved. The key is to understand the difference.

The "bad" conflict that everyone knows and loathes is known by conflict management professionals as "catabolic" conflict. This type of conflict is usually typified chronic and unresolved issues of confusion, role identity, communication, imbalances of powers and duties, perceived injustice issues, a history of improperly handled disputes, exclusion, etc. Conversely, "good" conflict, which is more professionally known as "anabolic" conflict, is rarely talked about - even in professional circles. Anabolic conflict is typified by open discourse, honesty, investigation and introspection of key processes and players, acceptance of diverse ideas, and collaboration.

The problem with conflict is that the two types run counter-intuitive to our inherent emotional state as human beings. Anabolic conflict is in your face and open. Catabolic conflict, by contrast, is very subtle and may take a long time to grow and show itself. Therefore, human nature is to quash the conflict that is most apparent and adjust to the subtle conflict that no one can quite put their finger upon. So, how can one identify what is good and what is bad?

Because anabolic conflict is so apparent, it is critical to make sure that we understand its inherent nature best. By nature, anabolic conflict happens when there is an open and honest questioning of procedures. It is the type of conflict that begs for constant innovation and collaboration based in open discourse. For such conflict to work best it means that leaders, key workers, and other stakeholders have to be open to change and not take commentary to heart. This may sound easy to do but in practice it can be very hard to keep one's emotions in check when your ideas, your work, your investment in a group, etc. are called into question or open discussion for inspection.

Catabolic conflict is usually the product of previous anabolic conflict opportunities being previously stifled or never seized. It may be where a worker asks a supervisor a question only to be dismissed, admonished, or publicly chastised for being "insubordinate." It can also happen when communication is so broken down that no one knows what the other does or even what they may need to best do their job. Input is usually never asked or comes at the fear of punishment.

It doesn't matter whether it is in a domestic setting, a club or civic group, a church or synagogue, a non-profit, a government agency, or a for-profit business - conflict of both types will routinely pop-up. What makes a Fortune 500 company different from their competitors, a mega-church growing while others are dying, and a phenomenal relationship different from a heart-wrenching nightmare often hinges upon which type of conflict you feed and which one you try to extinguish.


Ken Johnson is a Collaborative Justice writer, lecturer and practitioner with former teaching experience (public and post-secondary), 15 years experience in the criminal justice system, certification from the Florida Supreme Court as a County Court Mediator and training in Restorative Justice from the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida.  In addition, he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Sciences from the University of West Florida and a Masters in Business Administration degree from Saint Leo University.  Ken Johnson is also the author of a soon to be released book called Unbroken CirclesSM for Schools:  Restoring Schools One Conflict at a Time.  For his good works, Ken was commissioned in 2005 as a Kentucky Colonel.  

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