Conflict Management

The aim of an argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. Joseph Joubert

Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “From conflict arises progress.” I’m not sure who said that and I couldn’t find the quote on the internet. But I can’t take the credit.

That conflict can have positive impacts is not a new idea. A similar sentiment was professed in the mid 1800’s by Frederick Douglass, a former slave, leader of the abolitionist movement and an eloquent speaker and writer. In his words:

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

Conflict energizes us and moves us to right wrongs, try harder, and go out of our way to help others.

Photo by Simon Rankin

It also gets in our way if we let it. Too often, conflict’s negative impacts outweigh the positive, leading us to close our minds and our hearts. In the workplace, in communities, and at home, conflict can be a source of motivation – or it can lead to gridlock and the potential shutdown of the federal government.

Much has been written about negotiation and conflict resolution, but one thin paperback has stood the test of time. Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In was first published 30 years ago in 1981, and it is still at the top of conflict resolution reading lists.

Fisher and Ury advocate for principled negotiation, similar to seeking a win-win strategy. Principled negotiation has four primary points (Fisher, Ury and Patton, 1991, pages 10-11):

  1. People: Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Interests: Focus on interests, not positions.
  3. Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.
  4. Criteria: Insist that the result be based on some objective standard.

Sounds simple enough. And it is with practice and discipline. Greater detail and several examples can be found in Getting to Yes along with ways to deal with obstacles to principled negotiation.

This is something that you can try at home – and at your workplace and anywhere else you find yourself dealing with unproductive conflict. Knowing how to deal with conflict effectively is an essential organizational survival skill, and it may just come in handy next time you’re figuring out who’s turn it is to mow the lawn.

Photo by: nouQraz


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