Most think conflict is bad, something to be avoided. In reality, conflict is as essential to life as breathing. We cant live without it. Conflict is the perception of a difference that matters.
A conflict is what occurs when we notice something needs to be different, and we have to do something about it. If we dont notice, (perceive) internal and external environmental changes were brain-dead. If we do notice these changes but none of them matter, we do not feel the need to do anything about them; were physically and/or emotionally dead.
For example, if were alive, when the temperature of the room goes down, we feel uncomfortably cold, and we must take action. We have options, but once we notice feeling cold, and feeling cold matters to us, we must do something about it. We can put on a sweater, turn up the heat, close the window, go to a warmer place, or decide to tolerate the discomfort but we must do something.
Conflict motivates action. Its the only thing that motivates changes within and between people. Even if the action taken is as seemingly minor as a change in attitude, when there is conflict, action must be taken.
An interpersonal conflict occurs when two people disagree about a matter of importance to both. When we notice a loved one is angry with us we have to do something to settle our differences. We can terminate the relationship. We can sulk in silence. We can ask what the other person wants from us. We can offer a solution. We can attempt to find a solution that will benefit both of us. We can retaliate with our own anger. What we differ about however is often less important than how we negotiate our solutions.
Obviously, resolving differences is more complicated when the conflict is between groups of people, or nations. Regardless of the number of people involved however, the quality of our life will be determined more by the way we settle things than by the nature and intensity of our differences.
Nations often attempt to settle differences through combat. In combat, there are no rules that either side can be trusted to follow. Information is purposefully withheld, fabricated, and distorted. Both sides are determined to win even if it means one or both will be destroyed. In combat there are only losers, and solutions are temporary.
Coercion is similar to combat; however the damage is psychological rather than physical. Like combat, there are only losers and solutions are unsatisfactory.
Many think the optimal way to settle a conflict is to compete, to fight for what we believe is right and to get our way, but to do so in the spirit of fair play.
In competition, the context of games and sports, there are winners and losers. The stakes are not as high as they are in combat or coercion and gains and losses are not meant to be life threatening. There are rules the players agree on, and for the most part they trust the rules will be followed. When winning is very important cheating is to be expected and is tolerated to a certain extent. But there are rules to discourage and punish cheating and these can be enforced if the cheating gets out of hand.
In the market place, competition between businesses is the norm, and there are laws to keep cheating under control.
Often, administrators attempt to use competition as a management strategy. They believe that pitting one employee against another, one department against the other, will result in a better product and more creative solutions. Prizes are offered to individual workers that come up with the best solution for a bug in a new product line, or to employees who satisfy more customers, save more money for the company, etc.
Competition works well in sports, and between businesses. However, competition between spouses or friends, players on the same team, or employees of the same company rarely produces creative and satisfying solutions. And, of course, by its very definition, competition produces at least as many losers as it does winners.
When the context is one of compromise, both sides win and lose a part of the prize. Negotiations are about an equitable and fair resolution. Participants in the problem solving dont necessarily end up agreeing with the others point of view, but they are willing to settle for part of what they want in exchange for giving the other side part of what it wants. Solutions may not be all that creative, but they do tend to be more personally satisfying.
Collaborative cooperation is the most challenging and the most satisfying way to settle differences and solve problems. The most creative solutions are achieved with a high degree of trust and a healthy respect for differences. Information is openly and honestly shared. Diverse strengths, skills, expertise and talents are valued and utilized to promote creative solutions and better products, and all share in the rewards. In this context, there are no losers. There is excitement, exhilaration, and pride in the achievement of a common goal.
Reciprocal cooperation is most appropriate when there is no product or common goal to be achieved, other than peaceful co-existence, and when people are likely to encounter each other on a regular basis for an unspecified amount of time. The rules for reciprocal cooperation are simple and clear. Be nice first. Be nice back. When someone is nasty, be nasty back, but only as nasty as the other person was to you. Never up the ante and retaliate with a behavior that is worse than the insult or the injury received.
Avoiding conflict is like avoiding life. The quality of our lives and our relationships with others however is determined by the way we negotiate our solutions. We have choices of how we resolve differences (conflicts) within us, between us, between communities, and between nations. We can choose combat, coercion, competition, compromise, or cooperation.