Most of us think that we disagree over what we think, feel, and want. In Mediating Dangerously, renowned author and mediator Kenneth Cloke writes that many conflicts — including the spectrum running from simple arguments through litigation — often have little or nothing to do with these issues.
Re-examining how we define conflict has far reaching implications in our personal and professional lives because it can lead to the ability to create deeply empathetic and honest communications upon which lasting resolutions can be built. Here are some of his eye-opening observations based on his vast experience:
- Conflict represents a lack of awareness about death and sudden catastrophe in our lives. As we become more aware of our finite existence, many conflicts become less important.
- Conflict arises whenever there is a failure of human connection or an inability to understand our inter-connectedness. When we notice our connected human spirit, we begin to act together and conflicts become simple disagreements that can be managed.
- Conflict is a mask that we use to divert attention from our mistakes, a way to blame others for our own failures. As authentic self-acceptance increases, conflict de-escalates.
- Conflict represents a failure to value our own integrity or the personal space of others. As we respect each other’s boundaries, fewer conflicts arise.
- Conflict represents an inability to handle certain behaviors. As we become more skillful in our responses to difficult behaviors, conflicts decrease.
- Conflict is often the pursuit of our own false expectations or unrealistic fantasies. By surrendering these false expectations and fantasies, we eliminate the conflict we create for ourselves by trying to get others to be someone or something they never were.
- Conflict represents a lack of listening. As parties listen to the nuances of communication with each other, they uncover the true content of the messages, and counterattacks become constructive responses.
- Conflict is often a result of secrets, or of what we have hidden or failed to communicate. By shedding light on the shadows, conflict disappears.
- Conflict represents a lack of skill in communicating what we feel, think, or want. Through clear communication, needs can be met and conflict de-escalated or avoided.
- Conflict represents an inability to grieve or say goodbye, or a refusal to let go of a relationship that is dead or dying. For example, divorcing couples often fight as a way to say goodbye.
- Conflict is a way to create negative intimacy when positive intimacy is no longer possible. Parties often prefer anger over indifference until they are truly ready to let go of a relationship.
- Conflict results from our inability to learn from past mistakes, and use them to grow, learn, and improve our understanding. Conflicts are often founded on a simple desire for better relationships with authenticity, emotional honesty, acknowledgment, empathy, and communication.
- Conflict is often the cry for change in a system that is no longer useful or functional, or has cracks or weaknesses. The introduction of necessary change to an organization or family system often decreases inter-personal conflict.
As Cloke notes, all of these definitions of conflict begin and end with each of us and the systems in which we live. By recognizing, acknowledging, and re-defining the conflicts we face at a level beneath the surface issues on which arguments appear to be based, we are able to open paths to personal and organizational transformation.