When we think of conflict, most often we think of the distress it causes us. While some people seem to enjoy conflict, more often people do not enjoy being at odds with one another, especially when the relationship is one of importance such as a family member, friend, coworker, fellow church member, or business associate.
What is our natural response to the pain of conflict? We tend to do whatever it takes to stop it, to “resolve” the problem and make it “go away”. Some of us want to stifle the conflict and just put an end to it. We jump hastily to “resolve” the conflict by adopting quick “solutions.” We think this will quench it, as if it were a fire. Or, we might try to pretend that conflict doesn’t exist. We change the subject. We may even stop talking to friends or visiting those associated with the situation, afraid that things might get unpleasant.
But just as pain can have a positive effect, causing us to move or adjust, so can conflict. Pain is our body’s way of telling us that something is not right, that something needs to change. Similarly, the discomfort of conflict should raise the question, “is there something we should be doing differently?” The difference between conflict resolution and conflict transformation is one of attitude and goals.
Conflict Resolution merely seeks to “resolve” conflict, to end the discomfort by any means. A judge bangs a gavel and says “so ruled,” and one side wins or loses. That does not mean the sources of the conflict have gone away. Nor does it mean that any real communication has occurred or that either side understands the other any better.
In contrast to this, Conflict Transformation does not place the highest priority on “getting rid of” the expression of disagreement. Instead, Conflict Transformation seeks to transform our experience of conflict from the inside out. A transformative mediator is a professional mediator who views conflict as an opportunity. A transformative mediator will attempt to help parties use the discomfort of their conflict to ask questions designed to explore the root causes of the discomfort, and then will seek to empower the parties to the conflict to respond to the conflict with a higher degree of understanding. Viewed this way, conflict is as an opportunity to examine a situation, to listen to the needs of an “other”, to understand our own needs more clearly, and then to see if there are avenues for collaboration and cooperation that would enable a better response than the current one. According to the theory of conflict transformation:
Conflict is a natural part of life. When people have conflict, that means there is change, growth, and engagement in life giving processes of meeting and responding to needs.
Yes, certainly, conflict is usually perceived as uncomfortable or even painful. Yet is is also true that conflict often offers opportunity to develop new ways of seeing things. Conflict can be the force that helps us move beyond what “is” and to move toward a more positive “what could be”.
How we respond to conflict also involves a moral choice. No person exists as an island. Every social and business interaction provides opportunity for interests to collide. Thus, every organization or family experiences conflict. Conflict offers each of us an opportunity to respond in ways that are negative, or in ways which are positive. For example:
- Do we respond by attacking each other personally, or by tackling issues?
- Do we respond in ways that build organizational competence, or which undermine it?
- Do we respond in ways that promote healing, or in ways that deepen wounds?
- Do people engage in earnest dialogue to work through issues in ways that deepen understanding and relationships, or rather do they pretend nothing is wrong, disengage, or (at the other end of the spectrum), engage in personal attacks, vendettas, or hostilities?
Conflict transformation also requires a leap of faith, of sorts. Each party is given an opportunity, a moral risk, to relate to the Other in an authentic way. Each takes the chance that the Other will reject that opportunity. Everything is not guaranteed to turn out all right. Everything depends on how we respond to the moral decisions in front of us. Do we choose compassion, or not? Do we choose to be in more authentic relationship and understanding, or not?
There is a positive side to counterbalance the risk of choosing to respond compassionately. By exploring and highlighting our differences, conflict offers opportunity to develop more authentic relationship with the people with whom one is relating. When we choose compassion, we have no guarantee that our negotiating partner will also choose compassion, but we nevertheless open the door to possibility. Choosing compassion does involve taking a risk, but what are the options? Is it a risk one is willing to take?
No matter whether the situation is as personal as a divorce or as as a commercial as a complex legal dispute, parties in authentic dialogue may discover more about themselves, about their own needs (or needs of their organization), and also about the other person (or negotiating partner) and their needs. Good conflict management helps all parties understand their own needs better and then empowers parties to focus on finding solutions and thinking toward the future. Additionally, the best solutions to conflict are not those imposed by outsiders, but those designed by the parties themselves.
Seen this way, it becomes apparent that conflict transformation is a different, and more hopeful, way of looking at and dealing with conflict. The old view was that conflict itself was seen as the “problem,” perhaps like an annoying fly, and the key goal was to get rid of the discomfort by shutting up the buzzing, the expression of conflict. The problem with this viewpoint is not only that stifling the expression of conflict doesn’t make the causes go away that were creating the symptoms. The parties remain conflicted at the root, causing deep and lasting damage to their relationships. Even more, this “all or nothing” viewpoint precludes the possibility of finding some other, better way of looking at and solving a problem.
How much better, then, the paradigm of conflict transformation in seeking to address root causes rather than symptoms. In a transformative type process, the parties are encouraged to explore their interests and needs and work together to find solutions that meet as many of those needs as possible. When viewed this way, the goal of Conflict Transformation is to provide a mechanism by which both parties may be enabled to work together to tackle their common problem: the problem of identifying the crucial interests of each and then finding a way to meet as many of those needs and interests as possible.
Divorcing spouses separate their lives and develop parenting plans without engaging in warfare. Parties to a commercial transaction negotiating at a bargaining table may discover new opportunities for engaging in business together. A church congregation heals division and becomes unified once again. It is trite to call this a “win – win” solution. There is not always a way for every interest to be accommodated. But many conflicts can be resolved and most can be helped, and almost every conflict handled through mediation results in better understanding.
In summary, Conflict Transformation aims to provide a process, guided by a conflict resolution expert, which enables people and organizations to transform conflict into opportunity for pruning, growth, healing, and renewed vitality. Vitality not only in individual, healed relationships, but also in organizations and family systems which are restored to health and given tools to move forward in healthier, more balanced relationships.