Advice & News

September 6, 2023

What Can We Learn from Our Conflicts?


Why do some conflicts resolve amicably and quickly? Why do others drag on without true resolution and, at best, leave an icky feeling that we must simply endure? What are others doing to exacerbate the conflict and keep it alive? Surely, we aren't contributing to the problem, or are we? What changes are needed in the other person, in ourselves, or in the circumstances and processes by which we engage in the conflict to bring resolution?

We have a lot to learn from our conflicts. The question is whether we take advantage of our conflicts to learn from them so that we may more effectively handle them. In recent articles, I noted that some of our conflicts will not resolve quickly or at all, so we must develop strategies for engaging constructively in them and tools for maintaining respect, fairness, and cooperation as the conflict continues. Along the way, we will develop confidence and ability to manage conflict and achieve better outcomes if we treat our conflicts as learning opportunities.

Think about a conflict you are currently experiencing or recently experienced. What does this conflict teach you about:

Who you are when responding to conflict. We behave in certain ways when engaged in regular everyday activities. We behave quite differently when challenged by a conflict situation. This may be due to an emotional or psychological threat we perceive causing us to engage in withdrawal or shutting down "flight" responses or overcompensating verbal, aggressive, and argumentative "fight" responses. Or we may relish the conflict and adopt an aggressive negotiation stance, or conversely loathe the prospect of engaging in the conflict and adopt avoidant behaviors. We might become sarcastic, dismissive, angry, manipulative, accusatory, distracted, nervous, overly excited, or uncharacteristically quiet or verbal (among other descriptors). You must be self-aware of how conflict affects you and what that tells you about the need to learn to monitor your reactions and behaviors to be more in control, focused, and present when working through the matter.

How the other person responds to conflict. It would be great if the other person (or people) in the conflict were similarly cognizant and self-aware. There would be a lot less consternation, angst, and tension if we all self-monitored our feelings, thoughts, actions, and reactions and sought cooperative ways to work through our differences. While we can't control the other person's thought processes and behaviors, we can realize that the other person also experiences emotional and psychological responses and has their own way of responding to conflict. Knowing the other person, being observant, making educated guesses, and empathetically putting yourself in the other's shoes will help you assess who you are dealing with and why and how the person engages in the conflict and responds to you as they do.

Your relative contributions to causing and continuing the conflict. It took both of you to get where you are in the conflict. This is not to justify the other person if, indeed, they are behaving in ways that anyone would find troubling. Yet, even if you had legitimate reasons for taking a defensive posture and engaging in workarounds, such actions contribute to continuing the conflict compared to a more direct approach. We can also say, "I did nothing to cause this," when in fact your acts of omission, such as not stepping in to respond when you could have or allowing matters to escalate when an earlier intervention would have helped, contribute to the conflict.

It takes humility to objectively look at what has occurred that allowed the conflict to continue. Could you have said something earlier? Did you withhold information that would have benefitted the other person or allow a misunderstanding to go unchecked because it worked to your advantage? Did you say or do anything that was hurtful, deceptive, or inappropriate in some way that you should acknowledge now? Conversely, are there acts and omissions by the other person for which they bear full responsibility? Have you managed to raise your concerns so the other person knows how these actions impacted you? If not, will you do so now? When and how?

Separate out the causes and contributions to the conflict to provide guidance on actions you should take either to raise a concern or acknowledge your share of the problem. This may lead to a more objective analysis of the issues and provide the beginnings of a path out of the conflict.

The processes by which you engage in conflict, the typical results, and what you may need to do differently. We are creatures of habit. In conflict, we often utilize the same skills, approaches, strategies, and reactions over and over. Our adversary typically does the same. Then, we wonder why nothing changes as each attempt to resolve the conflict results in the same failed outcome.

Your assessment of the issues that keep you entrenched should include assessments of how you have engaged in the conflict thus far, whether these engagements simply repeat unsuccessful patterns from before, and whether a different approach is needed. Perhaps you are typically avoidant and tend to concede points, only to regret your choices later. Perhaps you are a little too pushy and demonstrative, causing the other person to shut down or to retaliate with similar unproductive behaviors. Perhaps it's a matter of developing new skills, competencies, abilities, and strategies to be able to return to the conflict and handle it more productively. Perhaps what's missing is a third party, such as a mediator or HR representative, to assist in the matter.

Whatever the situation, what is the different process or practice needed that may produce a more productive result? What do you need to do or learn to enable you to implement this different process or practice and encourage that different result?

The reality of the current situation and what it means. We can talk about our conflicts as though we live in a vacuum separate and independent of the organizational context in which we work. Do you work in an environment where employees are supported in their workplace challenges? That may make it possible to identify and utilize resources to help you address the conflict in a productive manner. Or do you work in an environment where dysfunction, tensions, incivility, bullying, and other conditions permeate? That will challenge your ability to address your conflict more directly or to feel safe in doing so. When you are facing conflicts with individuals with greater power, and who are uncaring or unmindful of the impacts of their behaviors on others, it will further exacerbate the difficulties. You'll need to weigh these factors as you develop an honest assessment of...

Your next step. Gaining perspective on the conflict as outlined above, along with the organizational context in which the conflict exists provides information from which you can determine the best next step. This learning may build your confidence to proceed to address the matter forthrightly. It may instead inform you to take a "wait and see" approach as you develop strategies for coping and skills in negotiation and navigating organizational politics (among others) to equip yourself to address the conflict later. Seeking help from the organization, such as HR, ombuds, or employee assistance programs, may be a viable option. Or it may become clear that you are a better person deserving a better job and place of employment, realizing no amount of self-reflection and use of conflict management tools will help you resolve the conflict. While this is tough, knowledge is power as you plan a meaningful exit strategy.

We can stay mired in our conflicts and feel there is nothing to be gained by continuing to deal with them. Or we can adopt a proactive mindset that there is always opportunity to learn from our conflicts, about ourselves and our adversaries, and about our responses to realize change and better outcomes -- now and for the future.


Consider these resources to continue the learning:

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