Effective Conflict Engagement

I was raised in a proud, warlike, clannish family.  As I realized when my grandmother was dying, and it became my mission to get the entire family to come home to see her, we are a proud, intelligent group of individuals ranging toward the eccentric and iconoclastic.  Though some of us would argue this point, I’d say there aren’t a lot of conformists among us.  Maybe it’s our agricultural background; when you’re out on the land alone, the problems you face are yours to solve however you can get them solved.

There came a point, back when there were family dinners and “grace” was said, that the number of gods being prayed to in that room nearly crowded out the humans there to eat the meal.  Conversation was a sport of Olympic proportions.  As a child attending family dinners at my grandmother’s house, I used to go upstairs to my aunt’s room and listen to the family talking through the floor.  Everyone talked at once and everyone had a lot to say.  It felt cozy and safe, as though those people would be equal to any problem that could face us.

Unfortunately, competitiveness, grudges, counting coup, and one-upmanship were also part of the picture.  Abrasive teasing was okay, and apologies were given for the sake of form and usually none too willingly.  Talking well was a far more valued skill than listening well, so much so that it was perfectly fine for a child to count coup against an adult if the child was linguistically the more powerful and eloquent speaker.  If you could out-think the situation, you could “win,” and winning, especially by a wide margin, was important.

Imagine what happened.

Until I was in my early 30’s, I was completely unaware that there was any other way to do things.  I entered a profession where competitiveness and intellectual performance were paramount.  My role models were those who won—and by a large margin.  At the same time, because I am who I am, I see the world symbolically.  And, also because of the work I do, I frequently come into high stress environments.  Sometimes I could almost hear the work group moaning.  I didn’t know what to make of all this:  It was not uncommon for other’s pain to be my gain.

In the late 90’s I became interested in the practice of coaching, took my first training in that domain, and then went on to take workplace conflict resolution training, then mediation training.  I learned about interest based conflict resolution and about a whole range of approaches to conflict, conflict resolution, and conflict management.  I was fortunate enough to be mentored by an extremely skilled workplace mediator, and I began working in the local county court small claims and landlord tenant mediation programs.

Thirteen years later, I have now worked with many individuals and organizations on the topics of conflict, or “problem solving” as some organizations prefer to call it.  The easiest model to work with that I’ve found is the Thomas Kilmann model of conflict.  I often use the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory (TKI) with clients.  It’s relatively easy to hold in your head, even under stress, and has decades of data behind it as well as enough theory and implication to keep any modern philosopher happy.  I like all that.

There are also many other ways to address conflict, and Diana McLain Smith’s approach as described in Divide or Conquer:  How Great Teams Turn Conflict into Strength is one of the approaches I find valuable.  Smith writes about relationship maintenance and being attuned to the early signs of conflict—in oneself and others—as a means of preventing critical relationship breakdowns.

I find some value in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) but find the original theory somewhat limited in usefulness in many business cultures I come across.  Variants are emerging, and it’s worthwhile to study this skill.

The greatest revelation to me when I first started studying conflict was that there were more ways than the one I learned growing up, which is the one most Americans have learned growing up:  competitive, debate-oriented approaches to conflict.  The interesting thing about this approach, from the TKI perspective, is that, while winning does get you what you want in the short term, focusing on competing and winning will almost always break trust.  Collaboration is seen as a difficult model to enact, but it is also the underpinning of most emerging models of leadership—particularly in a global context.

We have come to accept that collaboration is “too hard” and “takes too long,” and that makes sense from the perspective of cradle-to-grave competers and debaters.  It’s hard to do something that is so different from what you’re used to.

The challenge with clinging to competition at every turn is that, once you’ve crossed into all the virgin territory, cut down the best timber, and conquered the frontier, you’ve pretty much run out of road, and you’re left with the other settlers around you to deal with.  As the world has grown smaller, collaboration has emerged, and will continue to emerge, as a stronger force, in most cases, than competition.  As the problems we have to solve before us become more complex, dynamic, and multifaceted, the skills required to solve them are much less likely to exist in one person:  We need mindshare to go forward profitably.

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