Conflict is inevitable for any group individuals who share space and goals. Conflict isn’t bad or good necessarily, it simply is. Conflict is a byproduct of human relationships and human performance. Put any group of individuals together in community; allow for personality and ability differences; factor in limited time, money, energy; account for the toll exacted by the day-to-day grind; and you’ve got a cauldron for conflict. Should you aspire to lofty individual and collective goals, you will have added a conflict catalyst to the conflict cauldron.
Show me individuals thriving in any role—parents, spouses, siblings, teachers, workplace leaders, coaches, teammates; priest or rabbi, politician or physician—any individual, thriving to any degree in any role or setting and you will see individuals who manage conflict well. Where individuals and organizations are surviving, not thriving, where there is inconsistency in the quality of human interactions and performance, poor conflict management is likely part of the equation.
You have humans, you share space, you have some task to perform: you have conflict. Thus, managing conflict is an essential element of a positive and productive culture of excellence. Too often, however, our approach to conflict is focused on avoidance and dismissal—avoid conflict at all costs, and if you can’t make it go away. We often speak and operate in terms of conflict resolution, rather than conflict management. In the former, we seek to resolve it, or make it go away. In the ladder we accept it and manage the type and nature and net costs of this inevitable byproduct of human interaction.
Even in contexts where the goal is enjoyment and the relationships are familiar (i.e., friends or family gathering for food and fellowship), conflict doesn’t disappear. However, in contexts where our goals are challenging and our relationships are contingent, even utilitarian in nature (i.e., individuals with particular skills hired to help us thrive as an organization), then the nature, frequency, and intensity of conflicts are likely to increase. An intentional culture of excellence must proactively establish and develop the habits needed to efficiently and effectively navigate conflict—or suffer the real costs to the individuals and the organization.
In his book, Caring Enough to Confront, David Augsburger argues that when we see confrontation as rooted in caring, when we understand it as “care-frontation”, then we can begin to experience conflict as “natural, normal, neutral, and sometimes even delightful.” How could conflict ever be delightful? When it removes for the confronter the acute pain and recurring aggravation, along with the deep wounds and heavy burden that festers and grow when suppressed. Or, when it removes for the confronted the tangible tension and persistent awkwardness and provides them with something new insights into how to better exist and work with another.
Augsburger argues that “care-fronting unites love and power…concern for relationships with concern for goals.” Love and power, relationships and goals: I want the best for you, therefore I expect the best from you. I challenge you because I love you. I challenge you to make you the best you.
When confrontation is re-framed as care-frontation it goes from something to be avoided—a win-lose, angry and argumentative, attack the person not problem reality—to something healthy and productive and worthy of the energy required. Confrontation becomes care-frontation when we speak the truth in love, expressing our deepest beliefs and needs while still respecting the deepest beliefs and needs of the other(s), holding self and other accountable out of mutual respect and for our mutual benefit.
Here are some simple—though not necessarily easy—steps to transform confrontation into care-frontation:
- Attack the problem not the person. The goal isn’t to be right; the goal is to get it right.
- When in doubt, do it. Conflicts delayed and deferred make little things into big things.
- Use I-statements that honestly and respectfully express your thoughts and feelings, are solution-centered and clarify the goal or expectation (e.g., I think ___because…I feel ___ because…I intend to ___ because…).
- Avoid You-statements that blame, insult, attack the personality and/or character of others. You-statements divide, distract, and disrespect. They sound like “You never, you always, you should have, you won’t, you don’t.”
- Seek win-win solutions by clearly expressing your needs (I want), their needs (you want), and working together to find creative solutions that satisfy both (we could).
- Accept that mistakes and missteps will happen; be ready to apologize, make up for, and move on from mistakes—they too are inevitable byproducts of human relationships and goal attainment.
Conflict is neither bad nor good; it simply is. Conflict simply is an essential part of goal achievement and human interaction. Turn confrontation into care-frontation and you’ll begin to more fully realize your human potential and performance goals.