Conflict. Hint: it's not about resolution.

“I am a woman in process. I try to take every conflict, every experience, and learn from it. Life is never dull.”
— Oprah Winfrey

“Dan, you didn’t tell me that we were only going to have half the team here today. Do you realize that this means I’m going to have to teach this entire workshop twice?”

Well it’s not my fault, Dan replied defensively. We only have room for so many people in this room. And besides, I think the smaller group gives more interaction anyway.

Exasperated, I threw back at him, “Well, I just wish someone would communicate around here! I never seem to know who’s on first and what’s on second. It’s barely managed chaos around here!”

Now Dan went on the offensive: Look, the email went around and had everybody’s name on it who was scheduled. All you had to do was look at the list. Know what I mean?


Thus opened the Thrive9 workshop last week on Conflict Resolution. Fortunately, Dan and I were play-acting…fooling the other participants just long enough to make everyone uncomfortable. And even though it wasn’t true, it was plenty real; everyone knows this is the stuff of our humanity.

These sorts of conversations play out every day across corporate America. What’s more, they play out in our homes, our churches, and our schools. If there’s more than one person in the workgroup, conflict is not a matter of IF, but WHEN!

When someone attempts to address the subject of conflict in an educational way, the focus is usually on resolution—how do we nip it in the bud before it causes any problems…and if it does erupt, how do we shut it down asap! But maybe there’s another way.

  • The Reactions. Based on personality, each of us is hardwired to take one of three postures upon being confronted with a conflict: we move against, we move toward, or we move away. If you move "against," your instinct is to win. If you move "toward," your instinct is to please. And if you move "away," your instinct is to avoid. You all know who you are!
  • The Mindset. The crucial understanding behind all three typical reactions is that, while they feel very different, they are all in fact the same--they are all defensive, protective strategies. And they fail at one or both crucial junctures: honoring yourself and honoring the other.
  • The Strategies. Conflict is the "Inbox chime" that a vital new source of information has just landed--an insight, perspective, or call to action that runs contrary to your current understanding. And you don't want to "resolve" that before you learn from it.

So which of the three defensive postures comes most naturally to you? What would it be like to not have to protect yourself in such a situation…but instead step into the other person’s world to understand their experience, their reality, their motivation? If you value the relationship more than you value being right, then you’ve just discovered something priceless.

After 8 or 10 years working with this idea, I’ll be honest: stepping into learning mode when I feel under fire is still not my natural instinct, but I’m getting there. And when I do, it’s always worth it.

Posted on September 2, 2014 .