Sometime potential individual clients or institutions and organizations who want to hire me are looking for a quick fix for their longstanding conflict management problems. They are sure that if I spend an hour or two with them training or coaching, if I give them a list of simple steps to follow, or a couple of pithy sayings, that it will be enough for them to manage the conflict and not have to deal with it any more.
A misguided quest for instant results
This quest for instant results is understandable, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about conflict and humans. In reality, like many aspects of human interaction and behavior, conflict situations rarely fit into neat little categories that you can solve immediately with a sure-fire formula.
Effective conflict management means changing people’s hearts, minds, behavior
I offer guidance to help people assess what’s going on in a conflict and the best way to address it. But that doesn’t mean it is quick. Effective conflict transformation cannot be superficial. It involves changing people’s hearts and minds, as well as their behavior. It involves growing and changing. And, barring a miracle, none of us can do this instantly or by ourselves.
Here are some simple (but not easy or totally linear) steps to transform and heal conflict:
Inner Work First:
Before people can manage conflict successfully, they need to wake up to their own selves and make conscious what might be unconscious triggers and reactions.
- Understand what conflict is and how you view conflict.
- Lovingly look within at your attitudes, assumptions, expectations, fears about conflict and other people and how past experience and messages you’ve absorbed impact this.
- Take responsibility for yourcontribution to the problem.
- Find compassion and gentleness for your own struggles and those of others.
- Be willing to change your own thinking and behavior.
Then, Outer Work —effective, compassionate communication with others
- Learn to truly listen and be curious about others, their story, their perspective.
- Learn how to talk to others without judgement about misunderstandings and differences as well as shared goals of getting along and being productive.
- Dialogue and problem solve about how to move forward as allies. This might involve negotiation, trying things out, establishing procedures to check in, letting go of having things the way you think they “should” be.
It takes time and commitment to change.
These steps are not a definitive. But, I can say with absolute confidence that conflict can’t be effectively healed or transformed only on the surface, with lip service or quick checklists. This kind of change takes willingness, practice, repetition, persistence, and gentle acceptance of ourselves and others. The conflict management certificate program I created at Sonoma State University, for example, is based on these principles. And, wonderfully, in 12 sessions many of the students were able to transform their relationship with conflict and difficult people. But we couldn’t have done it in a short workshop. It took time, repetition, support, and a lot of effort.
Sorry, my magic wand is broken
If I had a functioning magic wand I could wave to fix communication and conflict problems, I would absolutely use it and just go from organization to organization instantly transforming their conflict difficulties. But, my magic wand is broken! Conflict transformation is doable, but it’s not something you can “grab and go” like a readymade sandwich.
You have to work at it to get the benefits.
Anything worthwhile in life is like that—a wonderful relationship, a new career, writing a book, recovery from a serious injury. In my experience, every bit of willingness to try, even if I made mistakes, to persist, to practice, has led to increased clarity, inner peacefulness, a sense of purpose, and more harmonious relationships with others.