Recently I was asked to teach a Conflict Resolution class, to which I immediately said “YES, PLEASE!” Geesh, what a fantastic topic, fraught with drama and energy! Just think of all the sparks I can create. And you know how I like sparks. I’ve found that the growth, healing, and CHANGE we all desire comes out of the SPARK. So let’s talk about how to positively contain and maintain the energy created by the SPARK of conflict.
There are three presiding principles that I want my students to come away with. These principles will guide the entire class for the semester. They are easy to recall when you’re in the middle of a heated conflict and they have the power to change the way the conflict is going.
IT’S ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP, STUPID. During Bill Clinton’s 1992 successful presidential campaign, strategist James Carville coined “The economy, stupid” to focus the campaign volunteers on the main message. I think “It’s About the Relationship, Stupid” helps us focus on the relationship instead of the conflict. Sometimes we view the conflict as a face-off with the other person. But really, it is a natural, normal function of a relationship that both parties can face together. The couple faces the conflict, instead of the couple facing each other in the conflict.
Whatever you do, keep the focus on the relationship. Ask yourself what does the relationship need to make it through this conflict? An apology? A third party mediator? A compromise? It’s critical to remember that the relationship is much more important than the issue. After all, It’s About the Relationship, Stupid!
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE WHAT, IT’S ABOUT THE HOW. Often I will see corporate folks in my office who want to work on their communication and EQ (Emotional Quotient.) They have received some feedback from their supervisors and peers that they need help relating to other people on their team. They understand, plan and execute their work well (the WHAT,) but they have trouble communicating, collaborating and influencing their team (the HOW.) They tunnel-vision their way through life, for the sake of being right, isolating themselves from the people around them. Resolving conflict is often less about the CONTENT of what is being debated, and more about the PROCESS of how resolution is achieved. When you have a conflict with someone, you may be as right as rain and completely justified in your stance. However, if your style of communication makes the other party feel demeaned, inferior, dumb, or on the opposite side, you have lost the relationship. And remember, it’s About the Relationship, Stupid.
If being RIGHT trumps RELATIONSHIP, prepare yourself for a life of broken ones. However, if you learn to take the HOW seriously, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. The HOW is learning to communicate with humility, with inclusivity, and with open ended questions that draw people in, instead of pushing people away. Being willing to bend, to morph, and to expand your point of view communicates to the other person that you value what they bring to the table.
IT’S NOT A PROBLEM, IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY. Often, people are afraid of conflict because they associate conflict with something bad. Because of experiences within the Family of Origin, conflict could mean yelling, hitting, silence, withdrawal, break up, or cut off. These negative experiences with conflict can make people treat conflict like a major problem, instead of the opportunity it really is. Conflict is merely an opportunity to take the relationship to a new level of understanding, cooperation and even intimacy. There is no growth, no change, no success without the SPARK, and every relationship needs the SPARK. Conflict doesn’t have to be avoided, denied or obliterated. It should be recognized, and yes, even embraced as an opportunity to come closer. Conflict, when managed with the RELATIONSHIP and the HOW in mind, is merely a means of sharpening your character, your EQ, and your world view. It is an opportunity to widen your perspective, hone your empathy skills, and make you an expert in communication. The SPARK is not DARK! It is a GIFT with potential for great good. Conflict can be scary, just like a SPARK in dry grass. But once you know how to handle that SPARK, you can use its energy to create something new, different, and better. Whether it be a marriage, a team, a client relationship or a family, your ability to do SPARK MANAGEMENT with the RELATIONSHIP, the HOW, and the OPPORTUNITY in constant focus will energize your relationships for greater good.