By Danya Rumore
Even after many years of work in the field of conflict resolution and collaboration, I continue to be amazed by the extent to which productively working through conflict provides opportunities for positive change and growth. This can manifest as everything from diverse stakeholders working together across their differences to create innovative, out-of-the-box, highly effective solutions to complex public problems, to romantic partners gaining a deeper understanding of themselves and each other by working through their relationship difficulties.
If conflict can and often does lead to mutually beneficial outcomes, it seems like it would make sense that we would welcome it, or at least not resist it. Yet I know well from my own personal experience and helping thousands of people work through conflict that this isn’t the case. To the contrary, we tend to react poorly to conflict–or we try to entirely avoid it (which, for the record, usually doesn’t work).
This incongruity has left me wondering: why is conflict so hard for us?
I have spent the last two years pondering this question. What I’ve come to after much research, study, observation, and personal reflection is that the main problem with conflict is that we see conflict as a problem.
More specifically, the fact that we see conflict as something bad, as a threat, sets off a vicious cycle that, in and of itself, leads to problems. The vicious cycle looks something like this:
- We perceive and therefore experience conflict as bad, as a threat. This is in large part because we tend to see the world through a scarcity lens, which leads us to feel that there isn’t enough to go around, and there must be winners and losers in a conflict.
- As soon as we perceive the threat and have a desire to “win,” we get “neurologically dysregulated,” meaning our neurological system takes over in an attempt to protect us. We effectively lose our ability to think calmly and rationally for a period of time, and we go into defend-and-protect mode. We engage in protective/defensive behaviors, such as attacking the other person, accommodating in an attempt to make the conflict go away, or disengaging (a.k.a., avoiding).
- This inevitably results in poor outcomes, leading to hard feelings, damaged relationships, and other negative impacts.
- This negative experience reinforces the perception that conflict is bad–that it is a threat– and this contributes to the cycle being repeated the next time we are faced with a conflict.
This vicious cycle is perpetuated by the fact that we don’t talk about and accept conflict as a normal, healthy, and unavoidable part of life; to the contrary, we talk about conflict as a problem, and we often use the word conflict synonymously with fights or even war. Additionally, we haven’t prioritized teaching ourselves and others how to skillfully navigate conflict; therefore, few people are well equipped to address these situations in a productive way. All to say: It’s not surprising that we tend to see conflict as scary!
Observing and better understanding this vicious cycle has led me to conclude that one of the most, if not THE most, important steps we can take to help make conflict productive and not destructive is to accept that conflict just is–it is a normal, healthy part of life–and to view conflict as an opportunity for positive change and growth. Doing so allows us to welcome conflict when it happens, and to stay neurologically regulated when working through it. Embracing the fact that “conflict just is” also encourages us to learn how to become more skillful in addressing it.
To make this shift in our thinking and in our practice, it helps to make clear that conflict is simply the intersection of different perspectives, ideas, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other and not easily reconciled. We will not always see eye to eye. We will not always want the same things. That is just a fact of life. And this isn’t what causes harm.
What causes harm is when we don’t deal with this tension productively, leading to arguing, fighting, destroying relationships, or outright war. It is important to be clear that these detrimental outcomes themselves are not conflict; they are results of failing to deal with conflict productively.
In future blogs, we’ll further explore how you can reframe conflict from a problem to an opportunity. We’ll also explore some approaches for keeping our cool and acting skillfully when working through conflict. For now: I encourage you to tune into how you tend to feel when you encounter conflict. Do you tend to get emotionally worked up? Do you feel a fight, flight, or freeze response? If so, try reframing conflict from a problem or threat to instead being an opportunity for growth and positive change – and see what happens. You might be surprised!
Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a Research Professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a Clinical Associate Professor in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the Founder and a Co-Director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.
About the EDR Blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program, the EDR Blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional Blog posts at edrblog.org