Embracing Conflict as the ‘Motor of Constructive Change’

Six Ways to use Conflict as the pathway to a brighter and better future!

We’ve all heard and perhaps repeated ourselves the old adage ‘Where there are people, there are problems’. Conflict is a normal, albeit unwelcome, aspect of human relations. The fact that it is commonplace should spur us on to use it constructively, but the fact that it is mostly unwelcome and uncomfortable usually means we shy away from the hard work of engagement, preferring instead a quick fix!

Most us will have heard and spoken about conflict resolution, but it’s not so distant cousin ‘Conflict Transformation’ isn’t so well known. Which is a shame because the insights developed by it’s originator, John Paul Lederach, offer amazing opportunities to transform conflict into the motor of constructive change.

Here are 6 questions that can help you view conflict as the catalyst for positive change and development within your organisation, as well as your personal and professional relationships:

What do I want to do with this conflict?

More often than not people want to ‘move on’ from conflict. It is uncomfortable, threatening, usually perceived as uninvited and undeserved. The goal for most is ‘resolution’ to the problem. They want closure to the presenting issue and a return to perceived normality. However, using the conflict to build something better and more desirable for all concerned, releases its potential for constructive change.

Where do we focus our attention?

Conflict Transformation is essentially relationship-centred. Importantly, it focusses on the patterns and systems of relating that generate the presenting crisis, whereas conflict resolution habitually focusses on the disruptive relationships which present the crisis. In this sense a transformative approach has a broader scope, here the behaviour of individuals involved in the crisis is ‘revealing’ of the context and deeper, unspoken, patterns of relating that have caused the problems in the first place. You’re challenged to ‘Name the Elephant in the Room’, and not settle for a quick fix that risks a repeat performance.

What’s our purpose?

Anybody who’s ever had to deal with nettles knows that donning the gloves, seizing the nettles and pulling them up doesn’t solve the problem. It might remove a prickly challenge for a while, but they’ll be back. To eliminate the problem, you need a systemic response that goes to the roots. If your purpose is to find a solution to the ugly problem of conflict, you can achieve some respite. But why settle for respite? Why not use conflict as an opportunity to deal with the disruptive issue AND promote systems of constructive change that promote better relating?

What kind of process do we want?

Once you’re clear about your purpose, what of your process? One that deals with the disruptions as and when they appear will be of limited value if your purpose is to see the disruptions as symptoms of an underlying dis-ease within your web of relationships. You’ll be better served by a process that addresses both the presenting issue and your longer term strategy. These are not ‘forced choice, either/or’ questions. A both/and approach creates a win-win situation for all affected by the conflict, both in the present and in the future.

How much time are we prepared to invest?

Conflict can cause acute pain, distress and anxiety for those involved. It’s natural that people will want relief from that as quickly as possible. More often than not those responsible for sorting the problem will content themselves with a short-term solution. Longer-term solutions require more time, and will mean that the reality of anxiety and distress is not so speedily resolved. But, and it’s a big BUT, the causes of that pain will be more accurately identified, thoroughly understood, and effectively addressed. That has to be worth the wait and effort.

What does conflict mean to us?

Ask a person on the street how they view conflict, you’re likely to get a negative view. Often Conflict is something that’s unwelcome and needs to be avoided or ‘de-escalated’, in the common tongue, ‘calm down’. If we’re to harness conflict as a dynamo for constructive change, we need to stop viewing it so nervously. Conflict is seldom idle, it exposes inequities and reveals dysfunction. Handled courageously it energises change, promotes truth telling, and forges better and more durable patterns of relating. Conflict is all too often the untested motor of constructive change!